Sunday, November 26, 2006

The role of Moqtada al-Sadr in deciding the fate of Iraq

The latest cover story in Newsweek by Jeffrey Bartholet entitled "Sword of the Shia - ... Why Moqtada al-Sadr may end up deciding America's fate in Iraq" (alternatively in the web page title, "How Moqtada al-Sadr Controls U.S. Fate in Iraq") finally makes at least a halfhearted attempt to dig beneath the surface to get at what makes politics tick in Iraq. I was unimpressed by the first few paragraphs which grossly oversimplified and misrepresented the situation, but the final paragraphs did a reasonable job of summing up the role of Mr. Sadr in Iraq:

As word spread that Moqtada would lead prayers, people crowded into the mosque, most of them clad in black as a sign of mourning. Sadr asked worshipers to pray for his dead relatives, and also for those who had been killed in Sadr City. He again called for the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. He urged a top Sunni sheik to issue three fatwas: one against the killing of Shiites, another against joining Al Qaeda and the third to rebuild the shrine in Samarra. He compared his father's followers to those of the Prophet Muhammad. "After the prophet died," he intoned, "some of his followers deviated from his teachings, and the same has happened with followers of my father." The "cursed trio"—Americans, British and Israelis—were trying to divide Iraq. "We Iraqis—Sunnis and Shia—will always be brothers."

No one in Iraq talks about arresting Sadr for the murder of al-Khoei anymore. That seems like ages ago—back when Sadr's armed supporters were estimated in the hundreds, compared with many thousands today. Now diplomats speak of trying to keep Sadr inside the political system, hoping he can tame his followers. He's a militant Islamist and anti-occupation, they say, but he's also a nationalist, and not as close to Iran as some of his rivals. Nobody knows whether Sadr is dissembling when he speaks about Iraqi unity, or preparing for all-out war. What is clear—more today than ever before—is that it's time to stop underestimating him.

(my emphasis)

Even those two paragraphs were somewhat poorly written. I don't believe that anyone in the administration "seriously underestimates" Mr. Sadr, rather there is a political dispute and the Neoconservatives are simply insisting that he be treated with the same disdain that the Neocons treat liberal Democrats. That is the key gain that will come from the departure of American forces and occupation "advisers": finally permitting Iraqis to come to their own internal political accommodation.

In line with the Neoconservative agenda, American forces have repeatedly tried to suppress the political ambitions of Mr. Sadr using military force. That he should resort to force to protect his political interests in the face of U.S. forces and occupation bureaucracy and the lack of a strong, politically-neutral Iraqi national army should be no surprise at all.

I don't believe that the premise in the subtitle of the article is correct at all. Mr. Sadr does not "control" the fate of the U.S. in Iraq. Yes, Mr. Sadr will have a role in forming a new Iraqi government, and even a major role, but there are plenty of other skilled Iraqi politicians with large political bases whose native political instincts are being suppressed by the heavy-handed American occupation, and together they will be quite able to give Mr. Sadr a run for his money once the U.S. is out of the picture.

Mr. Sadr may be more outspoken in his criticisms of the U.S. occupation, but that does not define him as being in a position to "control" our fate at all. Iraqi interest in seeing the U.S. exit as soon as possible is not limited to Mr. Sadr.

The good news is that the article does at least raise awareness of some of the political issues, albeit with more than a little taint of yellow journalism. The lead sentences signaled immediately the unwillingness of the reporter to stick with facts: "One way to understand Moqtada al-Sadr is to think of him as a young Mafia don. He aims for respectability, and is willing to kill for it." This is neither an accurate nor productive characterization of Mr. Sadr's role in Iraqi politics. Yes, Iraqi politics has a wild west quality, but this is in the context of a war, repressive life under the former dictator, occupation, and the stifling "control" of the Neoconservative agenda. But to distill the motives of Mr. Sadr down to Mafia-like financial interests is grossly misleading.

Mr. Bartholet should be very grateful that I am not his editor.

-- Jack Krupansky


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