How Moqtada Al-Sadr Controls U.S. Fate in Iraq

How Moqtada Al-Sadr Controls U.S. Fate in Iraq
November 27th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: How Moqtada Al-Sadr Controls U.S. Fate in Iraq

How Moqtada Al-Sadr Controls U.S. Fate in Iraq
December 4, 2006

How Moqtada Al-Sadr Controls U.S. Fate in Iraq
He can deal out death through his black-clad followers and roil the government any time he chooses. Why Moqtada al-Sadr may end up deciding America's fate in Iraq.

By Jeffrey Bartholet
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. Yet the extent of his power isn't obvious to the untrained eye. He has no standing army or police force, and the Mahdi Army gunmen he employs have no tanks or aircraft. You could mistake him—at your peril—for a common thug or gang leader. And if he or his people were to kill you for your ignorance, he wouldn't claim credit. But the message would be clear to those who understand the brutal language of the Iraqi Street.
American soldiers who patrol Sadr's turf in Baghdad understand. They can spot his men. "They look like they're pulling security," says First Lt. Robert Hartley, a 25-year-old who plays cat and mouse with the Mahdi Army in the Iraqi capital. The Sadrists use children and young men as lookouts. When GIs get out of their Humvees to patrol on foot, one of the watchers will fly a kite, or release a flock of pigeons. Some of Sadr's people have even infiltrated top ranks of the Iraqi police. Capt. Tom Kapla, 29, says he knows who they are: "They look at you, and you can tell they want to kill you."
Sadr is a unique force in Iraq: a leader from the majority Shiites who has resisted American occupation from the start. He's a populist, a nationalist and an Islamic radical rolled into one. Part of his power is simply that he's powerful. Large numbers of impoverished Shiites view Sadr as their guardian—the one leader who is willing not just to stand up for them but to strike back on their behalf. "People count on the militias," says Lieutenant Hartley, who deals with Sadr's thugs on a regular basis. "It's like the mob—they keep people safe."
The longer Sadr has survived, the greater his prestige has grown. Iraqis and foreigners who meet him are impressed by the transformation. He's more diplomatic and commands more respect. He used to greet visitors at his Najaf office sitting on pillows on the floor. Now he has a couch set. His concerns are high-minded: he speaks of fuel shortages and cabinet politics. In the past, Sadr was shrugged off as a rabble-rouser and a nuisance. Now he is undeniably one of the most popular leaders in the country. He is also its most dangerous, for he has the means to wage political or actual war against any solution that is not precisely to his liking. He is driven by forces America has long misread in Iraq: religious sentiment, economic resentment and enduring sectarian passions.
And he is now a primary target of Sunni insurgents bent on provoking all-out civil war. Last Thursday, Sunni militants carried out their deadliest attack since 2003. Multiple car bombs, accompanied by mortars, killed more than 200 people in Sadr City, a Shiite slum of 2 million people in Baghdad that is dominated by the Mahdi Army. Shiite forces responded immediately by firing mortars at a revered Sunni mosque in Baghdad, and by torching other holy places. Only the presence of U.S. troops—and a wide curfew over the city—prevented far bloodier revenge attacks.
More than anyone, Sadr personifies the dilemma Washington faces: If American troops leave Iraq quickly, militia leaders like Sadr will be unleashed as never before, and full-scale civil war could follow. But the longer the American occupation lasts, the less popular America gets—and the more popular Sadr and his ilk become.
To many, Sadr's brand of Shiite politics—homegrown, populist and ruthless—seems a natural outgrowth of the ruin left in Saddam Hussein's wake, and a powerful part of what Iraq has become. The United Nations calculates that an unprecedented 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October. Death squads connected to the Mahdi Army, as well as to other Shia and Sunni groups, capture and execute civilians in cold blood, sometimes dragging them out of hospitals or government ministries. Corpses turn up on the street with acid burns on their backs, or electric-drill holes in their knees, stomachs and heads. Among ordinary Iraqis, the United States bears much of the blame for the bloodshed—just for being there. As Sadr put it to NEWSWEEK earlier this year, "The occupation is the decision maker ... any attack is [America's] responsibility."
The story of the U.S. confrontation with Moqtada al-Sadr is, in many ways, the story of American folly in Iraq. It's a story of ignorance and poor planning, missteps and confusion. Key policymakers often disagreed about the importance of Sadr and about how to deal with him. The result was half-measures and hesitation. But the story isn't just about past failures. It also contains lessons—and warnings—about the future.

Getting Sadr Inside The Tent
Sadr needed a new strategy, however. He wasn't strong enough to defeat the occupier head-on, nor could he eliminate his Iraqi rivals. So he took up what he calls "political resistance"—working from within the system. Chalabi played an important role here. Washington's favorite Iraqi had found that he had little popularity in his homeland, so he was seeking alliances. Chalabi also felt, as did many other Iraqis and Americans, that it was better to bring Sadr inside the process than to have him trying to destroy it. "Sadr is respected because of his lineage and because he speaks for the disenfranchised, the scared and the angry," says a Chalabi aide, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. "In that sort of situation, it makes absolute sense to try to get him inside the system."
Sadr made the most of the opening. Politicians in his Sadr bloc won 23 of 275 seats in the January 2005 elections and, after fresh voting nearly a year later, now hold 30 seats. In both cases, because of divisions between other large Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni parties, Sadr was able to play kingmaker. Two prime ministers since 2005—Ibrahim Jaafari and the current Iraqi leader, Nuri al-Maliki—have depended on his swing votes for their majority. But Sadr himself stayed out of government, and kept his distance. That way he could pursue a dual strategy—rebuilding his militia even as he capitalized on his control of key ministries, like Health and Transportation, to provide services to the poor and jobs to his followers.
The Sunni insurgents were pursuing a new strategy, too. In early 2004, U.S. forces had intercepted a worried letter from the Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, to Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi fretted that his fight against American forces was going poorly. But he had a plan: "If we succeed in dragging [the Shiites] into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger," he wrote.
Throughout 2005, Sunni insurgents launched increasingly vicious attacks on Shiite civilians and holy places. Sistani regularly called on his followers to exercise restraint, which they did with remarkable forbearance. But Sadr, who had long positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist—and who had cooperated with Sunni fighters in the early stages of the insurgency—now publicly called for Sunnis to disavow Zarqawi. New battle lines were being drawn.

How the Mahdi Army Works
For now, Sadr and his Mahdi Army have the initiative. They can stir up trouble without much fear of retribution. A case in point: When kidnappers grabbed an Iraqi-American translator in Baghdad last month, U.S. soldiers sealed off the Sadr City neighborhood where they believed he was being held. But Prime Minister Maliki—who depends on Sadr for political support—quickly ordered the Americans to remove their roadblocks. Maliki has also forced the U.S. military to release men picked up during raids in Sadr City on suspicion of belonging to Shiite death squads.
When the U.S. fails to respond to provocation, it loses credibility. And when it does respond, it can also lose. Last week, before the massive car-bomb attacks, U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out a pinprick raid in Sadr City to get intelligence on the kidnapped military translator, Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie. Like so many other U.S. military strikes in Iraq, however, it came at a price. American forces captured seven militiamen, including one who might have information on al-Taayie. But police said a young boy was among three people killed in the raid. A member of Parliament from Sadr's movement promptly showed up at the morgue, and held the corpse of the boy in his arms as he railed against the American occupation.
U.S. forces have tried hard to win hearts and minds. They've spent $120.9 million on completed construction projects in Sadr City, for instance—building new sewers and power lines—and projects worth an additional $197 million are underway. But the United States doesn't always get credit for the good works. When the Americans doled out cash to construct four health clinics in Sadr City during the past year, Sadr's men quickly removed any hint of U.S. involvement. They also put up signs giving all credit to their boss, according to Lt. Zeroy Lawson, an Army intelligence officer who works in the area.
The Mahdi Army has other sources of cash. It's taken control of gas stations throughout large parts of Baghdad, and dominates the Shia trade in propane-gas canisters, which Iraqis use for cooking. Sometimes the militiamen sell the propane at a premium, earning healthy profits; at other times they sell it at well below market rates, earning gratitude from the poor and unemployed.

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