Friday, December 21, 2007

Sadr Moves Closer to Iran

Moqtada al Sadr has been very much a destabilizing wildcard in Iraq. Even today, much about Sadr is unclear, with the four biggest questions being how much support he actually commands amongst the Iraqi population, the control he has over the "Mahdi Army," what is his relationship to Iran, and what will be his impact in Iraq in the long term. As to the last two questions, matters have indeed taken an ominous turn.

Sadr, a mid-level cleric, has retired to study and gain academic credentials necessary to join the upper echelons of the Shia hierarchy. But the type of Shia studies he is pursuing are not of the traditional "quietist" school that involves a wall, if you will, between church and state. Traditionally, Shi'ites have believed that clerics should stay out of politics until the return of the Mahdi, the last of the revered early Shi'ite imams, who disappeared in the ninth century. Shi'ites believe he went into hiding and will someday reveal himself. The highest religious authorities in Iraq today, led by Iranian born Grand Ayatollah Sistani, are of the quietist school.

But a new school of Shia’ism came to the fore with the 1979 Islamic revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution, founded the state upon the concept, first articulated by him, of velayat e faqi, or guardianship of the jurist. There are elections and parliamentary debates, but ultimate authority rests with a cleric known as the Supreme Guide who is appointed by a council of clerics. And it is studies related to the concept of velayat e faqi that Sadr is studying.

Sadr’s History:

Sadr is the son of a very popular and populist Ayatollah murdered by Saddam. Despite a lack of religious and academic credentials and seriously lacking in oratory skills, Sadr nonetheless inherited his father's mantle. There is no question that he was a powerful figure in Iraq through 2005 and well into 2006. He led a massive uprising against U.S. forces that ended with the decimation of his Mahdi Army in Najaf in 2004. His goal, then and now, was to evict U.S. forces from Iraq and see the installation of a Shia led Islamic government – though it is unclear from any of his prior statements whether he wanted to set up an Iranian-style theocracy.

That Sadr had a relationship with Iran became clear after the destruction of his militia during the Najaf uprising. Following this defeat, the Mahdi Army reconstituted with arms and funding from Iran. It arose again as a significant force as 2005 progressed, engaging in numerous firefights with Iraqi Army and police forces. In 2006, following al Qaeda in Iraq's bombing of the Mosque of the Golden Dome, Sadr’s forces engaged in a brutal campaign against Sunnis. In time, it became clear that Sadr was losing control of his forces, with the first signs of the reconstituted Mahdi Army splintering into separate militias and cells directly under Iranian influence.

Sadr himself opted to enter into the political process. His party eventually won 30 seats in the 245 member Parliament, forming a significant bloc of the 145 member ruling coalition of Prime Minister Maliki. Sadr's party was also assigned six ministries. None of those ministries were run functionally, and at least one, the Ministry of Health, was infamous for corruption and bloodshed. There is no question that Sadr exerted signficant influence over Maliki through the fall of 2005, inducing Maliki to limit U.S. operations against Sadr's interests.After the sectarian violence of the Mahdi Army climaxed in October, 2006, events came politically to a head shortly thereafter.

There were loud rumblings in the U.S. government over unhappiness with Maliki, and the other major Iraqi Shia party reached across the aisle to both Kurd and Sunni legislators with offers to form a new ruling coalition. Maliki had a catharsis and broke with Sadr, announcing his support for the Operation Imposing Law - in U.S. terms the surge - that was to target all combatants, including the Mahdi Army. Further, Maliki announced his intention to strip Sadr of the six ministries.

Shortly before Operation Imposing Law began in February, 2007, Sadr fled to Iran. Publicly, he ordered his militia to lay down their arms and refrain from hostilities prior to fleeing. In March, U.S. and Iraqi forces entered into the southern section of Sadr City and set up a permanent base. They have used that base to target militia commanders and death squads in Sadr City, significantly degrading these elements. In April, Sadr called for a massive demonstration in Najaf against the continued "occupation" of Iraq by U.S. forces. The demonstration, which Sadr and his supporters expected to draw hundreds of thousands and up to as many as a million people, ended up drawing less then 10,000 demonstrators and probably as few as 5,000 to 7,000. This is certainly suggestive that Sadr’s support throughout Iraq is, as one U.S. officer has described it, is "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Further, with the success of the surge in destroying al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency, a major reason for support of Sadr – i.e., protection – has disappeared. In its aftermath, as Iraqi police and security personnel have increased throughout the country in both number and efficiency, they are displacing Sadr’s militia, which, in many cases have acted as little more than thuggish criminal gangs.

Yet even as Sadr moves directly into the Iranian camp with his studies in the theory of velayat e faqi, or guardianship of the jurist, elements of his Mahdi Army are not only refraining from taking up arms, but are in addition actively cooperating with U.S. efforts to target the Iranian backed special groups. This is certainly a contradiction. Further, Sadr announced just recently that he is likely to extend the instructions to his militia to continue to lay down their arms.

Also, as discussed in a Washington Post article blogged below, there is a backlash occurring in Iraq now. The ruling political parties are mostly defined by their religion. As dissatisfaction with the performance of the central government grows, that dissatisfaction has included within its ambit the religious justification for voting for these parties. Thus, even if Sadr would like to see an Iranian style theocracy imposed in Iraq, it is very questionable whether it would have significant internal support of Iraq’s Shia population. Clearly it would lead to a civil war with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish populations.


How much support does Sadr actually command amongst the Iraqi population?

- It appears to be much smaller than is commonly thought, but Sadr probably still commands the loyalties of several thousand Iraqis, and perhaps into the tens of thousands.

How much control does Sadr have over the "Mahdi Army?"

- This question is very much at issue. Obviously he has some, but a portion of his militia are more criminal gangs than anything, and at least a part of his militia has been co-opted by Iran. Still, if even a few thousand of armed men are loyal to Sadr rather than the government, that is problematic.

What is Sadr’s relationship to Iran, and what are his long term intentions?

- Sadr has taken an ominous turn with his study of the Guardianship of the Jurist. This is particularly of concern in light of continued Iranian meddling in Iran. Only recently over 300,000 Shia in Southern Iraq signed a petition complaining of the Iranian’s violent influence in their region. Thus, anything that brings Sadr more into the ambit of Iran is of great concern.

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