No. 1 Question: How To Deal With Sadr?

No. 1 Question: How To Deal With Sadr?
January 22nd, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: No. 1 Question: How To Deal With Sadr?

No. 1 Question: How To Deal With Sadr?
Chicago Tribune
January 21, 2007
U.S. forces trying to pacify Iraq face a huge obstacle in the anti-American cleric who controls the country's biggest private army and has a vast, devoted following among the Shiite poor.
By Liz Sly
BAGHDAD -- As Saddam Hussein's neck was slipped into the hangman's noose, a voice in the background cried out loud and clear: "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada!"
That Hussein plunged to his death with the name of Moqtada Sadr ringing in his ears offers a profound statement on the enormity of the transformation that has been wrought in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion, and on the stature of the Shiite cleric at the center of the mess that Iraq has become.
The troublesome dictator has gone--and now the U.S. has to contend with the troublesome cleric, who has steadily been filling the vacuum left by Hussein's removal with his rapidly expanding power base among the triumphant majority Shiites freed from the tyranny of Hussein's Sunni regime.
With 21,500 more U.S. troops headed to Baghdad and President Bush promising that victory in Iraq still is possible, the question of whether Sadr can be tamed, disarmed, prodded back into the political process or perhaps militarily crushed is emerging as the biggest question mark hanging over Iraq's future. Twice in 2004 he fought U.S. forces to a draw.
Sadr is no Hussein--he holds no political office and does not lead any formal political party. In Iraq's confused and fractured political landscape, he is but one leader among several with the potential to thwart U.S. hopes for a resolution.
But as the leader of the country's biggest private army, and with a vast and devoted following among the poorest of Iraq's Shiite poor, he has emerged as the single most influential figure in the new Iraq, at once a kingmaker and a warrior without whom no peaceful settlement will be possible.
His al-Mahdi Army militia, estimated at 60,000 strong by the Iraq Study Group, holds sway over large swaths of southern Iraq and much of eastern Baghdad, and it is starting to encroach into the traditionally Sunni western half of the capital. Sunnis fear him as the harbinger of the death squads responsible for so many of the sinister killings targeting Sunni neighborhoods. Even moderate Shiites say his militia has done a better job than the Iraqi security forces in making their neighborhoods safe.
Just three years after his ascent from obscurity began, Sadr now is too powerful to take on militarily, too influential to marginalize and seemingly too radical to lure into negotiations, said W. Andrew Terrill, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., who sees no easy solution to the dilemma Sadr poses to the Bush administration's hopes for securing Iraq.
"He's much stronger now than he was in 2004," Terrill said. "I can't see any good option either for getting rid of him or eroding his influence."
Yet relatively little is known about the man himself. An elusive figure who rarely gives interviews or ventures into the public eye, he spends much of his time at his home in an outlying district of Najaf, the spiritual capital of Shiite Islam, surrounded by his black-clad bodyguards.
He owes his stature almost entirely to the legacy of his distant cousin, the enormously influential Shiite theologian Mohammed Bakr Sadr, who was tortured and hanged by Hussein's executioners in 1980, and to his father, the hugely popular Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was gunned down in 1999 in an assassination blamed on Hussein's Baathist regime.
"There are many of us," he told the Italian La Repubblica newspaper in a rare interview published last week. "We represent a majority in the country that doesn't want Iraq . . . to become a secular state and a slave to Western powers."
But Sadr has not demonstrated the kind of theological learning that would entitle him to the reverence of ordinary Shiites, and he was dismissed by the U.S. occupation authorities in 2003 and 2004 as too young, too inexperienced and too ill-educated to rank as a serious contender for leadership.
"He was seen as the dimmest bulb in a family that was seen as important but not having any abilities of his own," Terrill said. "That he's outmaneuvered the more senior and seasoned politicians shows that not to be the case."
Though he does not appear to aspire to political office for himself, he has shown himself to be a canny political strategist. Despite U.S. claims that he was finished, politically and militarily, after the battles in Sadr City and Najaf in 2004, his followers subsequently secured the largest bloc in parliament within the ruling Shiite coalition, and they were instrumental in winning the nomination for the premiership for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki--the main reason it is so difficult for al-Maliki to move against Sadr's militia.
Echoing Hussein's grasp of populist politics, he has successfully constructed a new form of personality cult built on his family's martyrdom. When Sadr's militia moves into a neighborhood, huge billboards quickly appear featuring the snowy-bearded faces of his murdered forebears interspersed with his own, youthful portrait. Loved and loathed with equal ferocity by his devotees and his foes, he is the only living Iraqi figure to be referred to almost universally by his first name--like Saddam Hussein--in a further indicator of his iconic status.
Exactly what Sadr wants is murky, however. His blend of fiery anti-Americanism, Arab nationalism and Shiite Islamism makes his ideology hard to pin down. When he first stepped into the limelight after the U.S. invasion, his rhetoric was pan-Arab and anti-Iranian. Now he appears to be moving closer to Iran. He repeatedly condemned the political process, then managed to secure for himself a powerful position within it. Now he is boycotting the government and parliament, and talking of war again.
Babak Rahimi, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, believes Sadr's politics are still evolving into a new and unique form of Shiite philosophy.
"The Sadrist movement is a really messy movement," Rahimi said. "They're in the process of shaping themselves and their identity is ambiguous."
But at the same time, Terrill says, it appears power is Sadr's ultimate goal.
"Sadr wants firstly to control the Shiite power base, but eventually his goal is to be the major player in all of Iraq, a unified Iraq that he dominates," he said. "He has some commonality with Saddam. To rise to the top of Iraqi politics is not something for the meek, and there are many aspects about Sadr that suggest a real ruthlessness."
Whether Sadr would ever be able to dominate an ever more fragmented and anarchic Iraq is in question, however. His movement has mushroomed so fast that it appears he doesn't always exert direct control over his followers. One political forecaster, writing in The Washington Post, tipped him for assassination in the year ahead.
Sadr told La Repubblica that he has relocated his family to a safe place and moves constantly.
If he moves closer to Iran, he risks alienating the anti-Iranian Shiites lured to his cause by his Arab nationalism. If he tries to move back toward the political mainstream, he will be vulnerable to challengers from within his radicalized constituency.
The man who has thus far outwitted and outmaneuvered the U.S. military and most of the rest of Iraq will have to muster all the political skills he has demonstrated in the recent past if he is to sustain the prominence he has achieved so far.

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