According to the Washington Post today, the Sadrist movement in Iraq has "embarked on one of its most dramatic tactical shifts since the beginning of the war." It says that Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered a shift away from targeting Sunnis, with the aim of forging a cross-sectarian coalition of nationalists.
The 33-year-old populist is reaching out to a broad array of Sunni leaders, from politicians to insurgents, and purging extremist members of his Mahdi Army militia who target Sunnis. Sadr's political followers are distancing themselves from the fragile Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is widely criticized as corrupt, inefficient and biased in favor of Iraq's majority Shiites. And moderates are taking up key roles in Sadr's movement, professing to be less anti-American and more nationalist as they seek to improve Sadr's image and position him in the middle of Iraq's ideological spectrum.Which shouldn't come as any surprise to Newshoggers regulars. We've been saying this was in the wind for some time now.
"We want to aim the guns against the occupation and al-Qaeda, not between Iraqis," Ahmed Shaibani, 37, a cleric who leads Sadr's newly formed reconciliation committee, said as he sat inside Sadr's heavily guarded compound here.
"Our retreating from the government is one way to show we are trying to work for the welfare of Iraq and not only for the welfare of Shiites," said Salah al-Obaidi, a senior aide to Sadr. He said the time was "not mature yet" to form a bloc that could challenge Maliki, who came to power largely because of Sadr's support.
It's significant that the two Sadr aides interviewed for the WaPo piece were Shaibani and al-Obaidi. Both had been held by U.S. forces and have been recently release - Obaidi five months ago and Shaibani as recently as mid-March when he had a high-profile meeting with prime minister Maliki. Both were released because coalition leaders judged that they "could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq."
Sadr senses an opportunity in recent moves by Sunni insurgent groups to break away from militants influenced by al-Qaeda, and in the threats by the largest Sunni political bloc to leave the government, which opens the possibility for a new cross-sectarian political alliance, his aides said.It's still early days, but this is a trend worth keeping an eye on. It's probably what is behind the recent Iraqi parliament move to vote for the end of the occupation, for instance, which would suggest very strongly that the measure would pass as it would have both the Sunni and Sadrist blocs votes from word one. Still, it isn't good news for the Bush administration, who have always intended "victory" to include Iraq being a client state of the U.S., as the forming coalition will be both hostile to the occupation and have broad-based support for violence should the coalition refuse to leave.
If the sectarian war can be stopped, if the Mahdi Army and Sunni insurgent groups can join hands and break al-Qaeda in Iraq, there will be less reason for U.S. forces to stay, said Shaibani, wearing a black dishdasha, a traditional loose-fitting tunic, and clutching a Nokia cellphone during an interview in late April. "The American argument is we can't have a timetable because of al-Qaeda," he said. "So we're going to weaken al-Qaeda for you."
Sadr's political followers have had informal talks with Sunni politicians and insurgent groups in the past month. "We think there is some possibility to have a closer relationship," said Hussein al-Falluji, a legislator in the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc.
Abu Aja Naemi, a commander in the 1920 Revolution Brigades, said Sadr's representatives have had informal discussions with his group.
The Sadrists, like most Sunnis, are against the idea of creating autonomous regions. They share concerns over the fate of the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk, division of oil revenue and the need for Iraq's constitution to be amended.
Likewise, in the short term a fair number of Sadr's Mahdi militiamen are going to be refuseniks over any kind of Sunni truce and so splinter off into new small armed factions. That will complicate the "surge" picture and lead to more sectarian violence as the Bush administration looks to reduce such violence before a looming September "deadline" which many in Congress are looking towards.