Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What's Mookie Up To?

By Cernig

Iraqi Shiite nationalist and firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered a ceasefire on the part of his Mahdi Army militia. Does this mean Mookie is a spent force? No, not really.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered a six-month suspension of activities by his Mahdi Army militia in order to reorganize the force, and it will no longer attack U.S. and coalition troops, aides said Wednesday.

The aide, Sheik Hazim al-Araji, said on Iraqi state television that the goal was to "rehabilitate" the organization, which has reportedly broken into factions, some of which the U.S. maintains are trained and supplied by Iran.

"We declare the freezing of the Mahdi Army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months starting from the day this statement is issued," al-Araji said, reading from a statement by al-Sadr.

In Najaf, al-Sadr's spokesman said the order also means the Mahdi Army will no longer launch attacks against U.S. and other coalition forces.

"It also includes suspending the taking up of arms against occupiers as well as others," Ahmed al-Shaibani told reporters.

Asked if Mahdi militiamen would defend themselves against provocations, he replied: "We will deal with it when it happens."
Surge supporters are obviously going to see this as an opportunity to proclaim success, as Captain Ed does today.
Having the Mahdis sidelined will mean less violence in Baghdad, where the militias had ruled the streets until the Americans decided to conduct their aggressive strategy starting in February. It may also mean a capitualtion in the south, where the Mahdis had battled against the Badr Brigade for control after the British pullout.
...A six-month vacation from Sadr will be exactly what the Iraqi government needs to keep the momentum towards reform. Sadr would have been a major stumbling block to the new agreements announced on Sunday, but his political position has eroded badly since the start of the surge. His flight to Iran undermined his credibility, and Maliki's survival without Sadr's ministers called Sadr's bluff.

So far, the signs look good for stability and progress in Iraq. If the situation continues to improve, the six month break will likely turn into a permanent end to the Mahdis and their influence on Iraq.
Ed also suggests that the final catalyst for this ceasefire might be the violence in Karbala over the last few days, where Mahdi militiamen clashed with Badr Brigade (SCIRI) militia acting as security at shrines there. If he's right, then many will see the hand of Grand Ayatollah Sistani behind today's announcement, desperately trying to preserve some form of Shiite unity in the face of spreading factional fighting.

Others wonder whether Sadr can carry through on his promise. After all, local ceasefires previously announced by the Sadrists have proven more a matter of words than actions as extreme Mahdi elements essentially ignored their commanders. Elrod at TMV writes:
My guess is that this latest effort to gain control over the militia - by declaring cessation of all military activities - is an effort to identify who really is a rogue element and then try to purge them. Those continuing to attack the Badr Corps, the Iraqi Army (which is often just Badr Corps militiamen in Iraqi uniform) or US troops will be revealed as rogue elements. It’s a test of discipline, then: who’s still with Sadr and who’s just using the Mahdi brand to carry out their own agenda.

The larger story, of course, is one of deep intra-Shi’ite rivalry that threatens to (and already has in some places) completely destroy Southern Iraq. There are real ideological differences between SIIC and Sadr: the SIIC is more loyal to Iran than Sadr’s militia (though Sadr has received some help from Iran as well in recent years), SIIC is more supportive of the US (in spite of its Iranian heritage and support), Sadr’s forces are more fanatic in their religious orientation, Sadr’s supporters are generally poorer than those of SIIC, Sadr’s base is East Baghdad while SIIC’s center is around Najaf. The struggle between these Shi’ite forces has already engulfed Basra and threatens to destroy the ruling Shi’ite majority in Parliament. If Sadr cannot reign his militia in, he will likely find himself faced with an even more militant rival. The question, though, is whether or not it is too late for Sadr to try to take control of the Mahdi Army. Only time will tell.
I think Ed's being far too optimistic about the positive effect this move will have on iraqi political reconcilliation, and Elrod definitely has a point but it's one that may not matter.

Here's what I think is happening here -

Sadr has figured out that, as everyone keeps saying, violence isn't the path to power in Iraq. As long as he and his Sadrists are still involved in violence against Iraqi and US forces, he's hampered in exactly how far he can push his political star. Yet he doesn't actually have to exert perfect control over his militia - just be in a plausible position to declare any attacks the work of renegades, call them a minority, and promise (frequently) to reign them in or destroy them. Hell, it works for the Iraqi government when they talk about the Badr Brigade thugs in uniform at the Interior Ministry and in the Iraqi Army.

Next, the US military has handed Sadr a "get out of jail free" card in the form of their co-operation with insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigade, who are now working the system to enable their own little protection-racket fiefdoms instead of bucking it. What's good enough for Sunnis is good enough for Sadrists, we will hear.

All of this will let Sadr consolidate his own state-within-a-state relatively unhampered, while also allowing him greater credibility and greater political power on the national stage, where he's been doing some (possibly two-faced) outreach to Sunni nationalists and secularists as well as positioning himself for the next stage of an eventual bid for the Grand Ayatollah's position. (On that note, the Sadr aide who announced this ceasefire is the prominent imam of the Kufa mosque who has street-cred as someone detained by the US for months then released without charge.)

It doesn't mean he's going to rejoin Maliki's "coalition of the seperatists", far from it. But it will give him more political clout to oppose Maliki while not seriously impacting his ability to exert a monopoly on force in his own demesne. My only real surprise is that he didn't think of it sooner.

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