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Filed under: War on Terror — Rick Moran @ 7:36 am

Muqtada al Sadr is a name familiar to most Americans who have been following the Iraq war closely. His “Mahdi Militia” has twice foolishly tried to take on the US military and been slaughtered - once in Najaf where Sadr’s chestnuts were pulled out of the fire at the last minute by a sickly Ayatollah al Sistani and again in Baghdad’s impoverished Sadr city where the radical cleric was forced to agree to a cease fire to save what was left of his militia.

Despite those two setbacks, Sadr’s militia has become the sharp end of the stick for his brand of Iraqi nation building. In a story that’s been developing for months and has gone largely unreported in this country (although British newspapers have done a good job in keeping tabs on Sadr’s political ploys) Sadr’s militia has followed the age-old axiom of politics - power abhors a vacuum - and moved into cities and hamlets in southern Iraq where Iraqi government forces have either been too weak or too scared to challenge him. They have introduced the strictest form of Islamic law, segregated the sexes, forced women to wear the burqa, and adopted an Islamic code of justice for local jurisprudence.

In effect, Sadr has been trying to set up an autonomous region in the south. Part of the reason for doing this is that he believes that the largest Shia party in Iraq, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is getting too close for comfort to the Iranian Mullahs. Sadr fears Iranian influence almost as much as he opposes the American occupation. Hence, as a hedge against that influence (and as a way to have more influence himself) his militia has carved out a sizable slice of Iraq where neither the national government or American’s have much sway.

The wrangling over the new constitution has put Sadr into something of a bind. Relegated to a backseat in negotiations with the Sunni’s and Kurds, Sadr has decided to play an extraordinarily dangerous political game. He has actually cast his lot with the Sunni’s in opposing the constitution based on the concept of federalism as defined in the drafts. Sadr evidently believes that by granting too much autonomy to a Shia federal state, the SCIRI will dominate the politics of the state government leaving he and his followers out in the cold.

To assess his influence within the Shia community, al Sadr fomented an armed clash this past Wednesday between his Mahdi militia and the militia backing SCIRI, the Badr Brigade:

The violence erupted after al-Sadr loyalists tried to reopen an old office belonging to the al-Sadrite movement. The attempt to open up an office met with resistance from al-Sadr’s main rival group, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI’s armed wing, the Badr Brigades, and al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army are the only two noteworthy militias among the Iraqi Shia.

Almost everyone in the Shiite political spectrum took serious note of the clash and has been quick to placate al-Sadr. His opposition comes from SCIRI, not the entire Shiite community — and even SCIRI publicly denies involvement in and condemns the attack. Satisfied that he is taken seriously by the more established groups among the Shia, al-Sadr then decided to back off and call for peace and harmony within the community. In other words, al-Sadr generated a mini-crisis to assess his current political status and the future of his movement.

This move also puts al-Sadr closer to the Sunnis, who have accused the Badr Brigades of engaging in violence against their community. Al-Sadr knows that if he is to rise within the ranks of the Shia, resistance will come from SCIRI — which means future clashes between Shiite militias are likely. For now, however, the Shiite movers and shakers have brought things under control.

By fighting with the SCIRI, whose revenge killings against Sunnis for Shia deaths due to the insurgency have been rising in recent months, al Sadr has actually gained some support among important Sunni leaders. In addition, while Sunni’s have taken to the streets to protest provisions in the constitution that outlaw Saddam’s Baath Party, Sadr’s politicos also ordered demonstrations and in an impressive show of political muscle, more than 100,000 al Sadr supporters poured into the streets in several cities on Thursday protesting against US interference in the constitutional process as well as proclaiming opposition to the federalism clauses in the draft document.

So far, Sadr himself has kept his position on the fate of the draft constitution to himself. In a way, he has painted himself into a corner and will have no choice but to oppose it. If the constitution is passed by parliament as is, Sadr will find himself in a quandary. If he supports the constitution, his influence in the Shia community will be reduced significantly. If he opposes it, he’ll be seen as an impediment to progress. What’s more, Sadr’s opposition will likely not take the form of sitting on the sidelines with his militia. Armed conflict with the SCIRI could be in the offing.

In short, al Sadr is a wildcard in the whole constitutional mess. His choices are narrowing the closer the constitution gets to ratification. And despite his militia’s questionable military capabilities, they are fanatical enough to cause a host of problems for both US troops and the SCIRI. Al Sadr will not go quietly into political oblivion.

Is there a way to satisfy the radical cleric while maintaining the integrity of the constitution? Some observers believe that most of what al Sadr is doing can be explained by a desire to be taken seriously by the entire Shia community. They point to Sadr’s religious standing (he’s too young to have the experience and years of religious study to become a respected Shia cleric) as a major cause of his frustrations. Could he be appeased by Ayatollah al Sistani who could elevate his standing as a cleric? It’s possible but not likely. As in all religions there are rules and procedures, not to mention traditions, that must be followed. It’s doubtful that even if Sistani wanted to he could satisfy al Sadr’s desires in this regard.

Could al Sadr’s Mahdi militia join with the Sunni insurgency and make common cause against the coalition? This has been a fear of the US military since Sadr emerged as a player following the US shut down of his inflammatory newspaper Al Hawza. And al Sadr’s flirtation with Sunni support in opposition to the constitution is troubling indeed. However, unless Sadr has gone off the deep end, it’s unlikely not only that he would actually join forces with the unreconstructed Baathists but that the Sunni’s would trust him in the first place.

What is possible is that Sadr would initiate a low level insurgency in the months leading up to the October 15 nationwide vote on ratifying the constitution which would be designed to highlight his political position as well as attempt to weaken support for the SCIRI. This too would be a dangerous game with Sadr running the risk that the Badr Brigades and the US military would think him too troublesome and try to destroy his militia and thus his influence. But it’s also possible that by carrying out attacks on both US military targets and Badr Brigade cadres, his influence would skyrocket among the Shia population.

Muqtada al Sadr presents an enormous problem for both the United States and the new Iraqi government. At the moment, they’re desperately trying to placate him so that his fanatical followers don’t disrupt the constitutional process that’s balanced on a knifes edge. But Sadr has his own balancing act to worry about. Which way the radical cleric goes may determine the future of constitutional government in Iraq.

Information in this article was obtained from Lebanonwire.com, a subscription only mideast news service.


  1. Rick,
    You begin with the statements:
    1) “His “Mahdi Militia” has twice foolishly tried to take on the US military and been slaughtered…” 2) “…where the radical cleric was forced to agree to a cease fire to save what was left of his militia”,
    3) “Despite those two setbacks, Sadr’s militia has become the sharp end of the stick for his brand of Iraqi nation building.

    I am not so sure that he was foolish, forced to agree to a settlement or was setback in any way.

    I suspect that he knew exactly what he was up against and knew how to be victorious. There are more ways to win than killing all of the enemy and my opinion is that a political victory is what he was looking for, and got. He did, after all, walk away with a cease fire not once but twice and he is now so deeply invoved in the equation that he can disrupted the entire constitutional process. His victory comes in the form of being that “sharp end of the stick for his brand of Iraqi nation building.”

    I would like to think that our military and political professionals thought through the consequences of allowing Al Sadr breathe air rather than dirt and that they knew what they were doing (although I fear that we have forgotten how to fight a war). I still recall EVERYONE asking why we let him walk, not once but TWICE! So much for massive military power.

    But since it is fun to throw out opinions, I’ll throw this out: it was he who was victorious, not us. We should have taken him out with a show of force that no one could have mistaken while we had the chance. I am not sure what all of the consequences of killing him might have been but maybe we would have been rid of him and his sharp stick.

    I don’t know what the consequences

    Comment by Marv Loopstra — 8/27/2005 @ 9:22 am

  2. Actually, I agree with most of what you say although the choices made by the military about Sadr seemed to have been rational at the time.

    There really was little choice. In Najaf, we had his forces surrounded. As you may recall, he was holed up in one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam when Sistani brokered the deal that let him off the hook. In order to kill him then, we would have had to take out the Shrine - and incur the wrath of 100 million Shias.

    In Sadr city, if we had wanted to destroy his militia, we would have had to take a bunch of civilians with him. Again, domestic political concerns (like those that prevented an earlier Fallujah campaign) came into play.

    I’m not sure how smart he is. He’s not widely traveled nor is he a respected cleric (as I mention in the article). I think you may be ascribing too much in the way of brains to this guy.

    I think…

    Comment by Rick Moran — 8/27/2005 @ 9:44 am

  3. Sadr’s militia did share operational and logistical elements with the Sunnis back in April of 2004 when both rose up against US forces. I should know, I was there! In a Shiite city in the Sunni Triangle. Interesting place.

    Today, Sadr is fighting for a place at the Shia table, as well as the national one. Sistani, still the major player in Shia, and perhaps a Kingmaker, works to marginalize Sadr for personal and political reasons.

    It’s an interesting question whether Sadr will break from the Shia orthodoxy and re-contact his Baathist connections. While operationally it would work for both of them, the Sunnis could undercut the US and the Shiites, Sadr could gsain allies against Sistani, it is not in Sadr’s long term interest. His position can only be to the religious right of Sadr’s he can’s support a constitutional arrangement that would help the Sunnis.

    We’ll have to see.

    Comment by John Byrnes — 8/27/2005 @ 3:59 pm

  4. Cindy’s 19th nervous…

    The key question is the insurgency. Having won this round, it would be wise for the Shiites to throw Sunni leaders some sort of political bone before October’s ratifications. With three provinces of Sunni majority, the Sunnis are in a position …

    Trackback by Pundits My *ss — 8/27/2005 @ 4:02 pm

  5. John:

    I agree 100%. And what;s interesting is that with all the talk of civil war, no one is talking much about the rivalry between Sadr and Sistani as actually acting as a break on such an eventuality.

    Sadr can’t afford a war with Sistan’s more numerous and more powerful Badr Brigades. Sistani can’t afford to lose a player who commands the support that Sadr does (nor does Sistani want to drive the US away as any Shia government is going to need our continued assistance both military and economic).

    As much as they loathe each other, they need each other. The same might be said of the Sunnis.

    On such a basis, nations are built.

    Comment by Rick Moran — 8/27/2005 @ 4:05 pm

  6. The big question is why that SOB is still alive since his movement was responsible for many USA casualties. I believe he also has ties to the Iranians and you know how much they like us.

    Comment by docdave — 8/28/2005 @ 6:01 pm

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