Monday, November 19, 2007

Half Man Half Amazing

For various observers and actors, with differing motives and agendas, Moqtada al-Sadr has been described as either an extremist, anti-American provacateur and Iranian Vassal at the root of all that ails Iraq, or an heroic, inclusive, nationalist force, hostile to any foreign involvement (be it American or Iranian), selflessly serving the interests of all Iraqis while keeping the flame for a united Iraq alive. The outsized criticism and adulation, respectively, only prove that it is possible to be overrated and underrated at the same time.

Neither caricature is entirely accurate. In truth, Sadr has a complex set of motives, objectives and traits that translate into a mixed bag of policies and rhetoric that are sometimes in conflict with each other, and almost always at odds with one side or the other of his janus-like public persona. There is an underlying quest for power (political, economic and religious), a willingness to work with foreign agents when it suits his purposes, as well as a streak of Shiite chauvinism. That side is mixed with a willingness to reach out to Sunnis, nationalist impulses, hostility to foreign influence, as well as a resistance to occupation, and all while operating a network that provides vital services to the most needy.

Juan Cole flags a recent example of Sadr's representatives acting in a way that runs counter to the narrative that Sadr is a true champion of Sunni outreach and a non-Sectarian agenda:

A senior official of Iraq's Sadr movement Thursday blasted a new draft law aimed at integrating former members of Saddam Hussein's regime into government, saying it would reward the ousted dictator's "agents" at the expense of his "victims."

Fallah Hassan Chanchal, member of parliament for Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite neighbourhood in northeastern Baghdad, also accused the Iraqi and US governments of wanting to reinstate members of the former regime.

"It is a coup against the constitution," Chanchal told AFP in an interview in Sadr City, bastion of the movement of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"The law recognises the rights of agents of Saddam Hussein, but not of the victims of Saddam Hussein," said Chanchal, who presides over parliament's de-Baathification Commission.

Swopa recently caught another:

An Iraqi judge has ruled that there is enough evidence to try two former Health Ministry officials, both Shiites, in the killing and kidnapping of hundreds of Sunnis, many of them snatched from hospitals by militias, according to American officials who are advising the Iraqi judicial system.

...the NYT story contains extensive descriptions of how Baghdad's hospitals turned into slaughterhouses for Sunnis after Moqtada al-Sadr's faction took over the Health Ministry. This had been previously reported elsewhere, but it might be useful reading for anyone laboring under the misperception that Mookie is some sort of misunderstood, noble Che Guevara-like figure just because he opposes the U.S. occupation.

This is not to unfairly bash Sadr. He is demonized and scapegoated enough. But neither does he deserve to be lionized. The nuanced reality defies the clunky good/evil frame that so many prefer to use (a frame that, for example, leads US officials to laud SCIRI, but fault Sadr). Zeyad from Healing Iraq said it best:

Hint for the U.S.: There are no "bad guys" and "good guys" in Iraq. Everyone has dirty hands. It makes no sense for you, nor is it going to improve anything in Iraq, to side with one bad guy against another, just because you're so confused that you can't differentiate between friend and foe. Just please remember that.


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