Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Weekend at Mookie's

A little over a month ago, Iraqi politicians announced - with much fanfare - a cease fire of sorts between two of Iraq's leading Shiite powers: the Sadrist current and its chief rivals, ISCI (formerly SCIRI, sometimes referred to as SIIC). At the time, several conservative commentators took this development as evidence, yet again, of Sadr's imminent decline (Captain Ed proclaimed that the one-time "kingmaker" was left to "fight for scraps" at ISCI's table). As I noted at the time:
The "death of Sadr" has actually been a frequent refrain for many Iraq war boosters. This was supposedly the case around the time of the Sadrist uprising in the Spring of 2004 (he has only grown in power and popularity since). After that, his political bloc was reportedly going to be marginalized via the elections (it wasn't, and his bloc became the lever of power within the UIA). In recent months, there has been a steady drumbeat of dubious rumors of Sadr's flight(s) to Tehran, allegedly in fear of the Surge (with the implication that Sadr's nationalist cred would be irreparably tarnished, which it hasn't).
Suffice it to say that in recent weeks, this "dead man" has been getting around more than Bernie. Last week, Matt Duss cited an article on outreach between Sadr's current and Petraeus' people:
It wasn't so long ago that U.S. commanders considered Moqtada al-Sadr to be the greatest threat to stability in Iraq. Now the Shiite firebrand's stock among the Americans may be rising....NEWSWEEK has learned that some of [Sadr's] deputies have been secretly meeting with Gen. David discuss cooperation on improving security, according to two sources who declined to be identified because of the subject's sensitivity. The general's spokesman, Col. Steven Boylan, qualified that assertion, explaining that while Petraeus has not met with Sadr, "the command has indeed had direct engagements with some of his people within the [Sadr] assist with reconciliation efforts." Boylan also says the military "applauded" Sadr's ceasefire.

U.S. commanders say that the Mahdi Army's quiescence is a significant factor behind the recent drop in attacks in Baghdad—by a third compared with six months ago, according to one estimate.
The order issued by Sadr for his militia to stand down was, true to form, spun by conservative commentators as a result of the Surge's success and evidence of Sadr's decline. Rather than a move of desperation born out of weakness, it was a means for the young cleric to purge his outfit of disloyal factions, and further replenish, restock and refurbish his ranks for the larger political/military battles ahead. He has much to gain by the political process, and it would be foolish to squander his power fighting the Americans at this juncture. The feeling is mutual - actually, it's a widely held notion.

Our own master of ceremonies, Cernig, brought a similar tale of Sadr's increasing influence/value to my attention, this time appearing in the Guardian:
The British commander in southern Iraq [Major General Graham Binns] confirmed yesterday that UK officials have been holding talks with supporters of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army in the hope they would be drawn into the political process. [...]

Confirming the talks with the Mahdi army, first reported in the Guardian, Binns said: "We may get to the point where the main Sadrist strain will support the Iraqi security forces - that's the goal."
Very popular guy for a declining power, huh? Actually, the Guardian piece takes the story one step further:
[Binns] said the Badr brigade - the main rival to the Mahdi army - had been too weak to mount a challenge.

"The Sadrist militia is all powerful here - more powerful than Badr. If Badr was allowed to take on [the Mahdi army] in Basra, they'd lose pretty quickly," he said. The Badr brigade is a rival militia connected to Iraq's biggest Shia party, [ISCI].
It is hard to say if Sadr's forces really have made such extensive gains in the battle for Basra. My guess is that the fighting isn't quite over, and that ISCI will continue to mount a challenge for control of this strategic/lucrative port city. Still, that British officials are even describing the state of play thusly suggests that, far from on the wane, Sadr is actually advancing his sphere of influence. It remains to be seen, however, how Iran will react to these developments in Basra (ISCI is Iran's closest ally in Iraq - ours too, ironically enough). Then again, Iran will probably decide that, like the Brits and the Yanks, it would be better served by accommodating Iraq's premiere ascendant political force.

It's not just political power that Sadr has been cultivating in recent months, though. The Newsweek piece cited above reports:
[A] source in the Shiite holy city of Najaf who also asked to remain anonymous says Sadr's gone underground there. He claims that Sadr is cracking the books, hoping to elevate himself to the level of hojat olIslam—one step below ayatollah. Some in the Shiite howza, the clerical elite that surrounds Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, scoff at the attempt. "His mentality does not allow him to reach higher levels of study," says one high-ranking howza scholar. But Sadr's instructors are thought to be followers of his assassinated father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and they might be inclined toward grade inflation.
Throughout these past few months, Sadr has indeed stayed aloof: above the fray as his deputies negotiate with the British, the Americans and even some Sunni militias in and around Baghdad. Similarly, he has been able to distance himself from the current Shiite government without completely severing ties or calling for a vote of no confidence. All while continuing to build his street cred, as it were, by taking a hard-line, anti-occupation rhetorical position. As Bartle Bull commented:
It is what we should expect from the canniest politician in Iraq: the rhetoric of the dispossessed, and the actions of an heir to power.
Just don't call it a comeback.

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