Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sadr, Iran & The Iraqi Government

If Moqtada al-Sadr allows the ceasefire he had declared in August to expire, than we will learn a lot about the strength of the central government from their response and the likelihood that Iraq will be able to survive as a sovereign nation.


I posted recently that Iran is increasing its operationa tempo inside Iraq, and that Sadr had only til Saturday to decide on whether to lift his ceasefire. The AP is reporting on it today:

Al-Sadr's Shiite Mahdi Army is among the most powerful militias in Iraq, and the cease-fire he ordered last August has been credited with helping reduce violence around Iraq by 60 percent or more in the past six months.

Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said that if the cleric failed to issue a statement by Saturday saying the cease-fire was extended, "then that means the freeze is over." Al-Sadr's followers would be free to resume attacks.

On an Internet site representing al-Sadr, al-Obeidi said that al-Sadr "either will announce the extension or will stay silent and not announce anything. If stays silent, that means that the freeze is over."

Al-Obeidi said that message "has been conveyed to all Mahdi Army members nationwide."

Assuming that Sadr allows the cease-fire to end, than what the Maliki government does should tell us a lot both about the perceived strenght of the Sadr organization and the likelihood that Iraq will be able to survive as a nation.

During the short life of the Iraqi government - it is not even two years old yet - Sadr's support for the Maliki government was initially a major part of Maliki's ruling coalition. As the Mahdi Army became ever more bellicose and responsible for violence, Maliki, under pressure from the Sadrists, tried to protect the Mahdi movement from the U.S. That changed in the months leading up to the surge, as Maliki and Sadr had a falling out. It wasn't until the surge was announced in January that Maliki finally stopped his protection of the Mahdi Army - and Sadr withdrew his ministers from the government.

Contrary to what the AP has reported, there are many reasons to think that Sadr's organization does not enjoy the popular support of the people anymore. Prior to the surge, the Mahdi movement legitimized itself by providing security to its members. But at the top, the Mahdi movement is not all that much different in terms of its radicalization than al Qaeda. It is merely the Khomeinist Shia variant of Salafi Islam that undergirds al Qaeda. The Sadrists have imposed medieval rules of Islam in areas where they have held sway. Thus, as security has returned to Iraq, as I discussed in detail here, there seems very little in the way of public support for the Mahdi Army.

Unless the Mahdi Army is disarmed and Sadr's movement destroyed, they will, I think, become another Hezbollah, with Sadr fully in the pocket of Iran. The school solution to this would be a declaration that the end of the cease fire is a declaration of war against the central government, and that they should vote to outlaw the Sadr'ist movement, indict Sadr for treason, and give to the members of the movement an opportunity to declare their alleigance to the central government. It would finally break the back of the Iranian tool that is Sadr, and it would go a long way to establishing the authority of the central government as one that exists for all Iraqis.

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