Alternative Insight

The Muqtada al-Sadr Dilemma

Iraq Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged as a positive force for Iraq reconciliation. He has transformed himself from a renegade fundamentalist Shiite cleric, who recommended armed opposition against U.S military presence, to a spokesperson for calm, peace and cooperation among opposing forces. His transformation illuminates the contradictions in U.S. policies of promoting democracy while allowing polarization, promoting stability while creating instability and engaging Iran while permitting its influence to spread in the present Iraqi government. Muqtada al-Sadr seems to have acquired a leading role for bringing stability to the havoc and wreckage of a crippled Iraq. How did this strange occurrence arise and how does it influence U.S. policies in Iraq?

The Emergence of Muqtada al-Sadr
From the beginning of his rise to power in 2003, al-Sadr had two attachments that benefited his standing - he is the son of the the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq in the late 1990s, and he inherited the conviction that, like his father, he did not have a close association with the Iranian clergy and the Iranian government. The youthful Iraqi cleric increased his instant fame by adding a key proposition for national success - appeal to national sentiments by urging the withdrawal of foreign forces from the nation's lands. He went further by forming a Mahdi army that battled U.S. and British incursions into Mahdi territory.

On the road from local cleric to national leader, Al-Sadr's party gained thirty seats and represented the balance of power in the Iraq parliament. He removed his supporters from the national government due to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's refusal to prepare a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. At this juncture al-Sadr apparently realized that the insurgency against U.S. military presence had degraded to battles between Iraq regional interests. Iraq was disintegrating as a nation, U.S. forces remained entrenched in Iraq, Iranian influence was growing in Iraq, and the present Iraq government led by Dawa Party leader Nouri al-Maliki was powerless and corrupt.The arrival of the U.S. "surge" impelled the departure of Muqtada al-Sadr. Similar to Gorbachev's brief disappearance from the Soviet landscape during the late Soviet era, the Iraq cleric went into hiding to escape possible assassination and to develop a new strategy on how to rescue a nation from itself.

Although it is conjecture, Al-Sadr undoubtedly noticed what few noticed - that the U.S. surge was a new war against a new Iraq, that it was a war to prevent Iranian influence in Iraq, that it would disregard the emergence of a new Iraq and would become a contest between those representing U.S. interests and those representing Iranian interests.

On May 25, 2007, the elusive al-Sadr emerged from concealment and delivered a speech to 6000 worshipers at a mosque in Kufa. He called for "the withdrawal of all occupation forces," a return to peaceful protests and cooperation with the Sunni constituency for developing a reformist and reconciliatory government. On May 30, he said that the U.S. and Iranian discussions on Iraq's future were illegal, despite the presence of Iraq government officials. He stated that "I totally reject the American and Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs and all should know that Iraq is for the Iraqis alone," and recommended that the Iraqi people "reject such negotiations and for their voice to be heard against intervention in their internal affairs."

Is Muqtada al-Sadr's promotion of reform and reconciliation that includes Sunnis only a temporary expediency for him to increase his support and will it lead to positive improvements in the Iraq debacle?

The Reality of Al-Sadr's Position
As a Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr has taken a controversial and extreme position that could endanger his position and even his life. He must be serious. The significance of his position was highlighted in an enlightening May 17 talk by Dr. Babak Rahmi at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Rahimi, a former senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace from 2005-06, where he conducted research on Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Shi'ite politics, and currently an assistant professor in the department of literature at the University of California, San Diego, considered Muqtada al-Sadr to be a central figure in the fragmented Shiite politics of division.

The Shiite cleric is trying to separate himself from destructive alliances and form a new direction. Contentious issues have not been resolved, especially those of oil distribution and federalism. Add the problematic status of the oil rich city of Kirkuk and the confused de-Bathification process and Iraq reaches an explosive mixture of de-stabilization and militias that will eventually face one another. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has the seat of Shiite power in Najaf, but he will soon fade from the scene. If so, conflict for power will erupt. Enter Muqtada al-Sadr.

After starting from relative obscurity in 2003, al-Sadr became a cult-like phenomenon. Nevertheless, by joining forces with the al-Maliki government he eventually alienated some of his followers. The original Sadr movement now has sub-movements and new rebel commanders in the Mahdi army. Add to the mixture, the splinter groups in the Dawa Party, many of whom have their own militias, and the Iraqi alliances are becoming tangled and complicated. From the Jamestown Foundation report on Dr. Rahimi's talk:

In terms of crafting a U.S. policy to address the fluctuating political situation, Dr. Rahimi cautioned against any involvement in intra-Iraqi sectarian politics. He feels the Shiite militias will either deteriorate into increased violence and all-out battles or join the political process in one form or another. If the United States openly picks sides, Dr. Rahimi warned that anti-occupation sentiments will only increase among the general Iraqi public. Although Dr. Rahimi strongly believes that the Shiite groups can and must deal with their own problems, if the United States decides to play a role in Iraqi politics, it must be "behind closed doors" and must recognize the need for Iraqis to take care of Iraq. At present, the United States must face the dual-problem that many Iraqis view the present Iraqi government as a U.S. puppet and U.S. forces as occupiers.

The increased competition among the militias in Basra is not too well publicized. The oil from Basra is the principal revenue for the government and three Shiite factions are fighting one another for control of the oil, finances and territory. Al-Sadr wants a united Iraq, which includes the Kurdish region, and a fair distribution of the oil resources. To accomplish this feat, Al-Sadr is willing to join forces with the Sunnis. This maneuver has gained him popularity with the Shiite rivals, and has undermined The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC ), previously known as The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The SIIC is headed by Ayatollah Mohamad Baqir Al-Hakim and is the Shiite faction most closely identified with Iran. Although Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani abhors clerics being involved with state affairs, this has not deterred al-Sadr. He still uses intimidation and fear for gaining support, and is gaining prestige over SCIRR, which has a strong militia and is losing support.

Considering that Iraq President Talabani is more concerned with control of his weight than control of Iraq, and Prime Minister al-Maliki hides under a table in the Green Zone from where he receives orders from the real authority - the U.S. military - no leader who can unite and pacify Iraq has appeared on the scene. Muqtada al-Sadr emerges as the unique leader. Leadership has become a choice between either al-Queda in Iraq or al-Sadr in Iraq, both of whom were created by the U.S. invasion. The U.S. certainly can't choose Al Queda, although it has been instrumental in developing that part of the insurgency, and has a dilemma in supporting al-Sadr.

The Muqtada Al Sadr Dilemma
It's not reasonable to support a major antagonist. It's not reasonable to not support an individual who has the potential to unite Iraq and lead it out of its quagmire. The United States needs al-Sadr but won't admit it. Al-Sadr could use U.S. support but won't seek it. As the U.S.military slowly demolishes the Iraq governing apparatus it enabled, it will need a new approach to fill the vacuum. Bush's mentors have exhausted all approaches. The scenario is apparent.

The quarter back huddle of the Bush administration decides the game is lost. The coach relays the efforts for the last minutes of play - try to lose by the smallest margin - act aggressive but be prepared to punt. This is a new strategy - signal the coach of the other team that the game is conceded, but gain assurances that the final score will not be humiliating. Back room politicians easily work out back room decisions. Muqtada al-Sadr will catch the ball and relay it temporarily to an allied player. After a period of quiet and stabilizing play, the eventual winners will politely permit the losing team to leave the field.

alternative insight
june 1, 2007