Between Eric, Fester and myself, we've followed the various iterations of the "Sadr's a spent force" theory that's been floating around now since at least 2004 post-Najaf and noted that each time rumors of his demise have been exaggerated.
Today, Abu Aardvark reports on yet another iteration of that theory - this time, it says that Iran has decided to cut Sadr loose and bury him because it no longer needs an armed opposition group as a proxy now that it's other proxies actually control the government.
Muqtada al Sadr is a mighty but reckless force; he is not as intelligent as Hassan Nasrallah and does not speak the language of politics, however he was an important factor in enforcing the Iranian influence at the moment in which Saddam Hussein's regime fell. Today, it appears that Tehran no longer needs al Sadr – so long as it has control over Iraq within the political framework.The article he cites, from the very Sunni and very Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat, goes on to suggest a link with Ahmadinejhad's recent visit to Baghdad, saying Tehran must have blessed Maliki's move.
Nouri al Maliki's regime, with its political prowess as opposed to the Sunni political crudeness, has managed to win over Washington – or neutralize it – as well as bring about American-Iranian rapprochement over the Iraqi issue. This was achieved whilst taking advantage of the political situation in Washington in light of US President George W. Bush's weakness following the Democratic victory in Congress and at time when the US has entered into a state of political paralysis as a result of the upcoming elections.
Iran no longer needs Muqtada al Sadr but rather wants a sophisticated model that is even more progressive than Hezbollah's in order to take over Iraq. A government in control is much better than an opposition whose only possession and demands are the right to disrupt – such as the case in Lebanon.
So you can add the "Iran is liquidating its no longer useful proxies" theory (which would fit this general line of speculation about Iran's doubts about Sadr and preference for the simultaneously-US backed ISCI) to the the generally most prevalent (in the Iraqi and Arab, not just Western, media) "Maliki and ISCI are liquidating their more popular rivals ahead of the provincial elections" theory; the optimistic "Sadr has lost power and now's the time to take him out" theory (thus far not borne out by the course of the fighting, but who knows - it's early); Maliki's own "it's time to establish state sovereignty over a 'lost' province" theory (which Bush, of course, has embraced; but then why isn't he taking on the other militias and warlords? and why would he start now, and in Basra?); and Reidar Visser's "Maliki is trying to build a power base in the Iraqi Army" theory.I'm personally highly sceptical - mostly because of the source, which is about as under-the-thumb of the Saudi royals as it's possible to be and which has previously mainstreamed anti_Iranian agitprop which later turned out to be wildly false 9it's reporting on that defecting Iranian general springs immediately to mind). But also because Maliki's SCIRI/DAWA coalition have been the central government for some time now - if Iran wanted to cut a recalcitrant proxy loose and back the proxy-in-power against it then Iran's had plenty of opportunity to do so already. Why now, of all times?
The answer to "why now, of all times?" and "why the Mahdi, strongest of all the militias, first?" seems to me to be one and the same. I keep coming back to those provincial elections which, if the Sadrists were free to contest them, would essentially reduce SCIRI - the main Iran-backed grouping and Maliki's main ally - from a major political force to a minor one.
Jules Crittenden, following the narrative as ever, writes today:
The Sadrists are claiming it’s all political, to cut them out of provincial elections, and if al-Maliki’s that interested, there’s got to be a sleazy political angle to it.* On the other hand, if it in fact has the effect of ending Shiite infighting and lawlessness, and edges out Iran, then there is a distinctly unsleazy strategic angle to it.But if Maliki's bloc wins, edging Iran out is exactly what isn't going to happen. In that much at least al-Sharq al-Awsat has it right. And if Maliki wins, the SCIRI, with its Badr Brigades, will be far and away the largest Shiite party and militia, with total penetration of the Iraqi security forces. At that point they may just begin to wonder why they need Maliki's DAWA as frontmen at all.