by Eric Martin
I'm not exactly sure why I took it upon myself to refute the periodic, triumphant claims that perpetual thorn-in-the-side-of-the-occupation Moqtada al-Sadr and his political movement were finished, and yet it became my sisyphisian chore - one that I've been busy with for the better part of 5 years (those would be 5 years of cyclical death and resurrection that would make a phoenix blush).
Part of my preoccupation with knocking down this omnipresent meme stems from an aversion to the insidious interplay of propaganda and policymaking based on belief of that same propaganda. Sadr represents a major obstacle to a prolonged U.S. presence (his movement strongly opposes it), and so proponents of maintaining that same presence repeatedly insist on his demise and irrelevance so as to magically sweep aside a major impediment. However, such wishes do not actually mold reality.
This is from the March 2008 Edition:
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?
A mere one month later:
Sigh. You knew it was about that time didn't you? Rich Lowry becomes the latest volunteer to fill the monthly quota of "Moqtada al-Sadr is dead" proclamations (a recurring phenomenon of remarkable perseverence despite its unbroken streak of being...well, wrong each time). As I have warned, the danger in this fantastical thinking is that policy makers will eventually believe their own hype, and then proceed to underestimate Sadr which results in a string of tactical defeats. Sun Tzu 101 is baffling esoterica to them.
This legacy came to mind when I read this piece by Anthony Shadid in yesterday's New York Times:
The followers of Moktada al-Sadr, a radical cleric who led the Shiite insurgency against the American occupation, have emerged as Iraq’s equivalent of Lazarus in elections last week, defying ritual predictions of their demise and now threatening to realign the nation’s balance of power.
Their apparent success in the March 7 vote for Parliament — perhaps second only to the followers of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as the largest Shiite bloc — underscores a striking trend in Iraqi politics: a collapse in support for many former exiles who collaborated with the United States after the 2003 invasion. [...]
The outcome completes a striking arc of a populist movement that inherited the mantle of a slain ayatollah, then forged a martial culture in its fight with the American military in 2004.
After years of defeats, fragmentation and doubt even by its own clerics about its prospects in this election, the movement has embraced the political process, while remaining steadfast in opposition to any ties with the United States. It was never going to be easy to form a new postelection government — and the Sadrists’ unpredictability, along with a new confidence, may now make it that much harder.
“As our representation in Parliament increases, so will our power,” said Asma al-Musawi, a Sadrist lawmaker. “We will soon play the role that we have been given.” [...]
The results of the election are not yet conclusive, and under a complicated formula to allot seats, the percentage of the vote will not necessarily reflect actual numbers in the 325-member Parliament.
But opponents and allies alike believe the Sadrists may win more than 40 seats. In all likelihood, that would make them the clear majority in the Iraqi National Alliance, a predominantly Shiite coalition and the leading rival of Mr. Maliki. If the numbers are borne out, the Sadrists could wield a bloc roughly the same size as the Kurds, who have served as kingmakers in governing coalitions since 2005.
In Baghdad alone, whose vote is decisive in the election, Sadrist candidates, many of them political unknowns, were 6 of the top 12 vote-getters.
“They cannot be dismissed,” a Western official said on the condition of anonymity, under the usual diplomatic protocol.
Disregarding the Sadrists has proved a motif of post-invasion Iraq. In the chaotic months of 2003, American officials habitually ridiculed Mr. Sadr as an upstart and outlaw, oblivious as they were to the mandate he had assumed from his father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, whose portrait still hangs in the offices, homes and workshops of followers. The ayatollah was assassinated in 1999.
That enmity erupted in fighting twice in Baghdad and Najaf in 2004. Four years later, the movement, blamed for some of the war’s worst sectarian carnage, was vanquished by the Iraqi military, with decisive American help, only to rise again in provincial elections last year. Many politicians now see it as part of the political mainstream, albeit one with a canny sense of the street and a knack for fashioning itself in the opposition.
It is the popularity of political movements such as the Sadrist Trend, as well as the clout of religious leaders like Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, that make talk about the U.S. unilaterally deciding to keep troops in Iraq beyond the withdrawal timeline set forth in the SOFA so misguided.
These decisions are not ours alone to make. We can no longer simply dictate terms - to the extent we ever could.
A large segment of Iraq's population wants us out of Iraq ASAP, and other factions will only tolerate our presence based on strict guidelines and parameters. We can't just pretend these Iraqis don't exist and that they don't have a vote, even if we voice an oft-repeated mantra about the death of their movement and their leaders.