Muqtada al-Sadr is reportedly thinking about extending his militia's ceasefire, perhaps indefinitely. It's a move that has left poor conservative pundits confused and wrongfooted about Sadr's motives again - not surprising, since they refuse to consider the possibility that the original narrative about Sadr put about by the U.S. military at the behest of neocon hawks like themselves was completely crap.
Here are the big hints in today's report - both of which have been there all along for those who didn't blindly swallow the mainstream story:
The son of a revered Shi'ite cleric slain under Saddam Hussein, Sadr has wide influence in the Shi'ite south and parts of Baghdad although he does not himself hold high clerical rank.The second of those two bolded big hints may be right out of the Hezboullah playbook, as some more perspicacious hawkish commentators have noticed, but is also the formula for every successful transition by an insurgency into a force of government from Sinn Fein to the Irgun. It's a no-brainer for anyone who understands that an insurgency needs it's society's support and if it gets enough support need no longer be simply an insurgency.
He has recently begun taking advanced Islamic studies in the religious learning centre of Najaf in a bid to climb the ranks of the Shi'ite religious hierarchy and increase his influence whilst also earning more respect from religious elders.
Although his political activity has been difficult to predict, those close to him suggest he is happy with the results of his ceasefire and may even seek to make it permanent, while emphasizing his organization's social role over its armed wing.
"There is a plan to freeze the Mehdi Army's activities again. (Sadr) has completed the re-organization of the force and has focused on using the members in helping society," a senior Sadr official said under condition he not be named.
A Mehdi Army commander in southern Iraq, who also asked not to reveal his name, said members of the armed group would obey any order given by Sadr.
"We listen to his orders, even if he were to decide to abolish the Mehdi Army. He understands our interests more than ourselves," he said.
The first is more peculiarly Iraqi, but the notion that Sadr is aiming for an Iranian-backed religion-based coup against those elements of the Shiite-majority government in Iraq who actually are most backed by Iran is ludicrous. It's based on a demonising narrative that never was based in reality.
No, Sadr has no need to emulate Iran's Khomeini or even Iraq's Sistani when he has another role model to aspire to - his father. Sadr Senior was Iraq's senior Shiite cleric before Sistani and stayed in Iraq (to be martyred by Saddam) when the folks currently in top position's in Iraq's government all fled to Iran. It's a parallel which resonates with the nationalist and poor majority of Shiites, rather than the pro-Iran elite - and Sadr has deliberately set out to make it. As my colleague Eric Martin recently wrote:
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."