February 21, 2008

IRAQ: Sadr calls the shots

Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's announcement on August 29 to freeze the activities of the Mahdi Army militia for six months has been vital to a 60% drop in attacks since the middle of last year. Yet the truce expires this week, and a return to hostilities could jeopardise those security gains.

Sadr, who has cited concerns over the continued detention of Sadrists and attacks on them by rival Shia militias, is said to be undecided as to whether to extend the truce. He is expected to issue a statement on Saturday if he has agreed to extend the ceasefire. Radio silence will mean it is over.

Declining influence?

Even if Sadr does not want the ceasefire to remain, there are questions over the cleric's political influence, and he faces challenges if he is to check the gradual disintegration of his movement:

  1. Sadr, the son of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shia cleric killed under Saddam Hussein, has always been a totemic figure with limited authority over Iraq's headstrong Shia leaders. By following Sadr, Shias could continue following the preaching of his dead father, who they could no longer formally identify as their beau ideal following his death.

  2. The Sadrist movement has suffered decreasing unity since 2004, when many elements rejected Sadr's efforts to quell the Sadrist uprisings, and his partial entry into the political system.

  3. Since the intensive targeting of rogue Mahdi Army elements began in December 2006, the Sadr movement has become even more dispersed and disrupted, with the cleric himself frequently disappearing for weeks or months.

The decision to stand down the Mahdi Army further loosened its structure.
It would be wise not to underestimate the cleric, who according to Vali Nasr, author of The Shi'a Revival, still commands the "largest social and political movement in southern Iraq". Nasr believes the Mahdi Army's leader is playing for time, developing stronger religious credentials and consolidating his control over a militia. "The game in Iraq is not over", says Nasr. "He has been beefing up his strength."

Sadr: potential ally?

Washington may also be bluffing. US officials have placed blame for some recent attacks on Iranian-backed 'special groups' that include Shia fighters not abiding by the ceasefire or expelled by the Mahdi Army. Washington increasingly recognises Sadr -- or at least pretends to -- as a potential ally against these rogue Sadrists, referring to the cleric with the polite honorific 'sayyid'. Senior commanders have characterised him as a legitimate Shia politician and defender of the poor, although it is unclear whether such US endorsements and related actions will help or hurt Sadr, or have no practical effect.

Sadr will most likely renew the truce to continue rebuilding the Mahdi Army into a Hizbollah-style movement primarily engaged in social services and political protests. However, if current trends continue, Sadr and his political movement will experience continued waning of their ability to influence Iraqi Shia.

Sadr's 32-seat bloc in parliament currently votes with cohesion, but a weakened movement could be less powerful in the assembly. Sadr's entry into politics has pushed many diehard Shia militiamen towards Iran, where they have received backing to continue anti-coalition and anti-Sunni attacks. This trend will continue.

At any rate, an even more fractured Mahdi Army will undertake operations based on local conditions, resulting in regular violations of future truces and perhaps even major uprisings where local conditions shift through elections or aggressive government operations to curtail Sadrist power. Sadr may speak up on Saturday, but it is unclear how many will listen.

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