Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Get Mookie

In light of this new characterization of Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the unfolding chronicles of Moqtada that I have been following since October. But first, the new outlook:

Armed militiamen affiliated with radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr pose the gravest danger to the security and stability of Iraq, surpassing Sunni Arab insurgents and Al Qaeda terrorists, a new Defense Department report to Congress says.
This description of the nature of the threat posed by Sadr is, at the very least, consistent with the Bush administration's recent attempts to manipulate the political landscape in Iraq in an effort to curtail Sadr's burgeoning power and influence. Regardless of the accuracy of such assessments, the flanking maneuver is on.

As it now stands, there appear to be two parallel tracks being pursued in service of the cause to neuter Sadr. Both involve building cross-sectarian/ethnic political alliances that would isolate Sadr, and remove him from the government's ruling coalition (and associated ministerial positions). The differences hinge on the role current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would play in the newly crafted contra-Sadr alliance. Call it the With or Without You approach. First, the 'without you' portion, as reported by the New York Times:

After discussions with the Bush administration, several of Iraq’s major political parties are in talks to form a coalition whose aim is to break the powerful influence of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr within the government, senior Iraqi officials say.

The talks are taking place among the two main Kurdish groups, the most influential Sunni Arab party and an Iranian-backed Shiite party that has long sought to lead the government. They have invited Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to join them. But Mr. Maliki, a conservative Shiite who has close ties to Mr. Sadr, has held back for fear that the parties might be seeking to oust him, a Shiite legislator close to Mr. Maliki said.

Officials involved in the talks say their aim is not to undermine Mr. Maliki, but to isolate Mr. Sadr as well as firebrand Sunni Arab politicians inside the government....

The Americans, frustrated with Mr. Maliki’s political dependence on Mr. Sadr, appear to be working hard to help build the new coalition. President Bush met last week in the White House with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Iranian-backed Shiite party, and is to meet on Tuesday with Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Sunni Arab party. In late November, Mr. Bush and his top aides met with leaders from Sunni countries in the Middle East to urge them to press moderate Sunni Arab Iraqis to support Mr. Maliki.
Ideally, I think the Bush administration would like to keep Maliki on board in order to maintain the democratic trappings, but if he flinches, they will pursue alternatives - even a possible coup if necessary (though this would be the least desirable path). For these cosmetic reasons, I tend to lean toward the "with you" faction's reading of events. Here, Eli Lake describes the "commitment" to Maliki - or at the very least, preference for non-coup related methods:

An administration official yesterday said the president has been insistent that no new strategy for Iraq would abandon the elected government in Iraq, despite that government's failure to stem anti-Sunni violence from some Shiite militias. "This war will be won if understand it in terms of the government against those reject it. It cannot be won if this is Sunnis against Shiites," this official said.

To that end, the State Department has already informed the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministry of a scenario whereby Mr. Maliki would stay in power, but Mr. Sadr would be marginalized.
The former Knight Ridder summarizes the situation along these lines as well:

A revised Iraq political strategy aimed at forging a "moderate center" of Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish politicians that would bolster embattled Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The goal would be to marginalize radical Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.
Even if the Bush administration is able to successfully negotiate the intricate web of Iraqi domestic politics in order to forge such a delicate alliance (involving groups that, though described as "moderate," still have largely divergent interests), I'm not sure what, exactly, would be accomplished. Aside from the fact that potential alliance members like SCIRI have been heavily implicated in sectarian violence, too much is being made of Sadr himself as the new bogeyman.

Part of the problem stems from the Bush administration's tendency to view such conflicts through the "Great Person Theory" lens of historical analysis. Rather than appreciating the structural and environmental conditions that create conditions conducive to a given conflict, instead, an "enemy" is fixated on as the source of the trouble. Capturing Saddam, killing Uday and Qusay, killing Zarqawi and nabbing countless of al-Qaeda's "trusted lieutenants" were each events that were touted as watershed moments in the Iraq occupation, but none have turned out to have the degree of impact as advertised. Unsurprisingly, the insurgency was not dependent on some inspirational figures (Saddam and his sons), or dominant personalities (Zarqawi).

Similarly, the sectarian strife in Iraq is not the result of one man's position in the ruling coalition and related influence in the official Iraqi government. Removing Sadr from the equation will, sadly, not alter the current trajectory of sectarian violence in a measurable way. The underlying conflict has taken on a life of its own apart from Moqtada al-Sadr's role in the government.

His Mahdi Army militia (responsible for stoking the fires of civil war) would, after all, remain intact even if Sadr himself were squeezed out of the government. If, on the other hand, the militia itself could be disbanded, then some degree of progress might be possible.

Which brings us to the next stage in Operation Get Mookie. The Bush administration could attempt to target the Mahdi Army once Sadr's official ties to the Iraqi government have been severed, but that would represent an operation of enormous complexity and, as they say, hard work. Sadr's militia has already swelled to approximately 60,000 members, and those already sizable ranks could increase dramatically if the cultishly popular Sadr - and his militia - were to come under large scale direct attack. This could pose a threat to those vulnerable US military supply lines that run through southern, Shiite dominated Iraq.

As has been noted, Sadr's movement has become a cultural phenomenon, and societal force. It is not merely a stand alone militia/political party, but a community unto itself that is closely intertwined with the militia as well as a network of vital social services delivered by Sadr's organization. Further, many of these Mahdi Army members have already infiltrated the Iraqi police and security forces such that any Iraqi government move against Sadr would be made exceedingly problematic - even with US military support.

Lastly, Sadr's popularity, and the unpopularity of the occupation forces, would also greatly weaken the eventual contra-Sadr bloc formed for the purpose of knocking Mookie down a peg or two. Casting Sadr out, and rallying to the side of the American forces, is not going to play well in the Iraqi street. On the contrary, Sadr's status and popularity amongst rank and file Iraqis will likely increase as he is seen as the embodiment of the anti-occupation sentiment, while the participants in the newly minted ruling alliance will be tarnished by their apparent obsequiousness to American interests.

So there is Catch-22 #2,987 in Iraq. Removing Sadr from the official Iraqi government and disbanding his Mahdi Army militia might (together) help to reduce some of the sectarian violence, but in the process of attempting to accomplish those tasks, Sadr will have been made stronger - making it harder to neutralize him and his militia.

Even if we killed him, his martyr status would enable him to plague us from the grave. It's the dilemma Darth Vader faced when squaring off against Obi Wan in Star Wars: If we strike Sadr down, he shall become more powerful than we can possibly imagine. And we all know how that one turned out.

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