Friday, March 21, 2008

Rumors of His Demise are Greatly Exaggerated, Again

According to Dan Senor, Moqtada al-Sadr is dead...again. Rumors of Moqtada al-Sadr's political demise seem to crop up every couple of months in certain circles (some recent examples were documented on this site here and here). Senor himself suggested after the Sadrist uprising in Najaf in 2004 that Sadr and his Mahdi militia had been neutralized and contained. But this time, Senor assures the reader, Sadr is really done for. Maybe. Sort of?

See, even Senor - sensing the tenuous nature of his thesis - retreats from the boldness and braggadocio with which he opens the piece, to the safety of caveats, qualifications and nuance at the end. So what began audaciously with the title, "Whatever Happened to Moqtada?", chronicling Sadr's "fall," ends not with a bang, but a whimper:

To be sure, Sadr's diminished capacity to stir up trouble may not last forever...[H]e still has his family name and a base of support among the Shiite underclass, particularly in Baghdad. He may be biding his time, hoping a U.S. withdrawal will leave him with a weaker opponent in the fledgling Iraqi security services. And as this week's deadly suicide bombing of a Shiite shrine in Karbala indicates, the security threats that enabled the Mahdi Army's rise to power have not yet been fully defeated.

So while the progress made against Sadr has been remarkable, it may also be fragile. Sustaining it means recognizing that political progress depends fundamentally on security.
It's not that Senor is all wrong: Sadr's movement has encountered some challenges and setbacks, and something of a loss of purpose for some. Early on in the conflict, Sadr's militia was one of the only effective providers of security for embattled Shiite residents of Baghdad. Senor argues that, thanks to the surge of troops, the relative calm has lessened the appeal of the Mahdi Army militia amongst the populace. Further, the quiet along the sectarian battle fronts (previously a source of income via the seizure of property from the vanquished) has left some Mahdi Army members without a revenue source, and so some have turned to crime to compensate.

While some of the symptoms described by Senor are likely accurate, his attribution of the cause is incomplete and his diagnosis of the patient imprecise. The surge alone did not bring calm to the sectarian battles plaguing Baghdad. Perhaps more important, many of the neighborhoods have been cleansed (or were finished off early in the surge), reducing the sectarian flashpoints. Not to mention the remaining communities have been walled off, sealed up and fortified making intra-neighborhood battles more problematic.

Further, Sadr himself has been trying to purify the movement of the radicals and criminals so as to consolidate control, maintain discipline and pursue his religious/ideological objectives (which don't fit hand in glove with an out of control militia engaging in criminal enterprises). As there has been less need for militia soldiers, Sadr has been trying to phase in more social service provision (which has always been the bread and butter of his guns and butter approach).

In leaping at any indication of trouble to declare victory, Senor, and the other proponents of the recurring narrative of Sadr's demise, greatly overstate the case. If and when the violence erupts again, the foul weather supporters will be back, and a more disciplined core of Mahdi Army fighters will do less to alienate the population generally speaking. His network of social services still deliver where the Green Zone government cannot - and that is a potent source of appeal. Further, his ideological commitment to nationalism, and opposition to the occupation, are still more popular than the alternatives.

Sadr is not in a state of defeat, but adjustment. His popularity has not been decimated, just dented. That's why Petraeus goes out of his way to bestow honorifics on Sadr, and why his main Shiite rivals, ISCI, are afraid to face him in regional elections come October.

That's an awful lot of deference to show a dead man.