Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The April 2008 Edition of: Moqtada al-Sadr Is Dead

Sigh. You knew it was about that time didn't you? Rich Lowry becomes the latest volunteer to fill the monthly quota of "Moqtada al-Sadr is dead" proclamations (a recurring phenomenon of remarkable perseverence despite its unbroken streak of being...well, wrong each time). As I have warned, the danger in this fantastical thinking is that policy makers will eventually believe their own hype, and then proceed to underestimate Sadr which results in a string of tactical defeats. Sun Tzu 101 is baffling esoterica to them.

Lowry is feeling good about the latest obituary because Prime Minister Maliki and others are calling for a law that would, somehow, prevent the Sadrists from competing in the next round of elections because his political movement has an armed wing, while exempting the mutliplicity of other parties in a similar situation. Also, the recent rumblings about Sadr leaving the fate of his militia in the hands of Sistani. To which, I cede the floor to Juan Cole:

The Sadrists have no intention of dissolving the Mahdi Army, according to this Arabic source, quoting Sadrist spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi. They point out, pace that great Iraq expert Lowry, that there are 28 militias in Iraq. The Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) still exists as a stand alone organization. In fact it ran as a political party in the elections and holds both provincial and federal seats. It hasn't been complete merged into the state security forces as Lowry alleged...

Then the US press went wild for this supposed report that Muqtada al-Sadr said he would dissolve his militia if Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani ordered it. Folks, he always says that when there is a controversy. (He said the same thing in spring, 2004). He says it because he knows it makes him look reasonable to the Shiite public. He says it because he knows that the grand ayatollahs are not going to touch the matter with a ten foot pole. They are not so foolish as to take responsibility for dissolving a militia that they had nothing to do with creating. And that is probably the real meaning of this CNN report that they 'refused' when asked. I doubt the grand ayatollahs in Najaf actively commanded Muqtada to keep his militia. They just declined to get drawn in. [...]

As for the the threat that the Sadrists would not be allowed to run in the provincial elections in the fall unless the Mahdi Army was dissolved, it is either empty or very dangerous. First of all, not only Sadrists but also other observers have pointed out that excluding parties from running in elections is not the prerogative of the prime minister. It is a matter that would have to be passed by parliament. And since the parliamentarians who would be voting to dissolve all militias ahead of elections are all in parties that maintain militias, it would be political suicide for them to vote that way. Of course, they could just play the hypocrite card and declare, as Lowry did, that their militias are not militias, whereas the Mahdi Army is a militia.

But if the Sadrists are really excluded from civil politics, and they are the majority in the South, then you will have just pushed a majority of Iraqis out of the political process and potentially into civil violence. Isn't that the opposite of the goal here?

The US casualty rate is already creeping up as a result of the anti-Sadr operations that, in effect, are besieging an expansive neighborhood of Baghdad - home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Now Sadr is renewing threats to call off the cease fire that is still in effect - though its parameters allow for violence in self defense. If he makes such a move, anti-coalition violence will likely spike.

Sadr was not dead the hundreds of other times Bush administration supporters declared it, nor is he likely dead now. Crafting policy based on that assumption at this juncture will liekly end as well as the previous misguided efforts. In that, the Iranians have offered a valuable lesson and if the Bush administration remains intent on maintaining its imperial foothold, it might as well take notes from other regional experts. As Matt Duss stated:

Sadr, on the other hand, is seen by the Iranians as an annoyance. This does not mean, however, that Iran has not sought to build ties to his movement. Though initially surprised by the strength of Sadr’s movement, (which they rightly regarded as a hindrance to their quick, easy, SCIRI-facilitated dominance of Iraq), Iran quickly grasped — unlike the U.S. — that Sadr’s political appeal was genuine, and has sought to manage it, rather than simply deny or suppress it, as the U.S. has done.

That being said, there are certainly signs that Iran may be prepared to throw Sadr under the bus as his usefulness is waning at a time when Iran might be eyeing the opportunity to usher in the era of "SCIRI-facilitated dominance of Iraq." As I have stated in the past, Sadr's long term goals diverge from Iran's in serious ways: Sadr is a staunch nationalist (at least vis-a-vis foreign powers if not always vis-a-vis sectarian rivals) and he vehemently opposes fragmenting Iraq by forming a semi-autonomous Shiite super region in the south. That is one of Iran's most valued objectives. So it is likely inevitable that Iran will try to weaken Sadr.

So now, via Cernig, comes this report:

Iran voiced support on Monday for Iraq's prime minister in a crackdown on a Shi'ite militia but blamed U.S. forces for civilian deaths in the fighting.

The Islamic Republic also said the United States, its old foe, had requested a new round of talks on improving security in Iraq and Tehran was considering it. [...]

Analysts say Tehran and Washington, despite their mutual accusations, may still have a shared interest in a stable Iraq.

Mutual interest indeed. I wonder if the fate of a certain Shiite cleric would come up as a central topic. The irony would be thick if rank: the Bush administration and the Iranians finally come to some accord on the situation in Iraq, with the compact formed over the decision to crush a popular indigenous movement, likely killing tens of thousands and disenfranchising millions. See, the Bush administration can do diplomacy!

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