Moqtada al-Sadr plays an unusual role on the chess board of US factional politics in Iraq.
As a radical Shiite–one who allegedly favors direct clerical rule and orthodox governance of everyday life–his ascendance is presumably a crisis for Right Arabists in the US foreign policy establishment who fear that the war in Iraq has facilitated the rise of a Shiite crescent in the Middle East.
As a radical Shiite–one who has consistently challenged the “moderate” leadership of Grand Ayatollah Sistani–he becomes a target for Right Zionists. As William Kristol and Rich Lowry suggested in their September 12, 2006 Washington Post Op-Ed, “Reinforce Baghdad,”
[T]he violence perpetrated by the Shiite militias is directly related to politics. It is part of a power play by the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr to marginalize moderate figures such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani’s recent statement of disgust with Iraqi politics suggests that Sadr’s gambit may be working. Sending more American troops at this juncture would not be a simple-minded and clumsy substitution of military force for political finesse. It would be an attempt to influence Iraq’s political situation in our favor.
It should come as no surprise, then, that foreign policy factional players in the US who disagree about most things in Iraq seem to agree on one thing: everybody
loves hates Raymond Sadr.
There are those–including elements of the US military–who fear that a direct assault on Sadr is simply too dangerous, politically and militarily, because everybody (in Sadr City) loves Sadr. But this is simply a tactical issue. Even these folks would like to target Sadr if they thought they could get away with it.
But this map of Sadrist political contours, viewed through the lens of US factionalism, doesn’t tell the whole story.
On the crucial question of regional autonomy/partition–where most Right Zionists support Shiite and Kurdish pressure for the breakup of Iraq and most Right Arabists stand firmly with those who favor the old unity maintained under Sunni Arab rule–Sadr stands with Sunni Arabs against the sectarian breakup of Iraq.
This was made clear, in recent days, as other elements of the Shiite governing coalition pressed for regional autonomy. According to the Washington Post article “Sadr Holds Out Against Plan to Divide Iraq,”
Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, remains adamantly opposed to a controversial plan to partition Iraq into a federation of three largely independent regions, a top Sadr aide said Monday.
Sadr’s objection to the plan remains steadfast despite a meeting Sunday night in Najaf between Sadr and his intermittent rival Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the prominent Shiite political party that is leading the push for federalism.
Sadr’s bloc broke with Hakim’s party to support the Sunni boycott on Sunday. That move prompted Hakim to meet later in the day with Sadr and then with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, although he declined to describe their conversations.
On this question, then, Sadr stands with Sunni political elites and their Right Arabist allies in Washington. And, for what it is worth, Sadr apparently has an ally in George W. Bush on this question.
I argued some time ago that this made Sadr’s position on partition was best explained by pragmatic politics relating to his unique situation as a leader of poor Shiites in Sunni-dominated Central Iraq. And I also argued that on this issue Sadr is a natural ally of Right Arabists.
Insofar as partition is the issue, the real split in Iraq is between Sunni Arabs and Sadrists, on the one hand, and the “mainstream” Shiites and Kurds, on the other.
Nowhere has the evidence of such an alliance been more visible than in recent debates over partition. A Washington Post article entitled “Federalism Plan Dead, Says Iraqi Speaker” tells the story:
[Parliamentary Speaker] Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said in an interview that legislation to implement a concept known as federalism, which threatened to collapse the country’s fragile multi-sect government, would likely be postponed indefinitely after a meeting of political leaders on Wednesday….
“It is not possible to venture or to start the application of federalism now.”
“Look, Iraqi blood is more important than federalism,” he said.
So, in light of the alliance between Sunni Arab politicians like Mashhadani and Shiites aligned with Sadr, why don’t Right Arabists in the US embrace Sadr?
The answer may be that for Right Arabists opposition to partition–important as it is–is still less important than one other issue: an ongoing, forceful US military presence in Iraq.
The problem with Sadr, for Right Arabists (and, to be sure, Right Zionists) is not that Sadr is too close to Iran (he is arguable less close than the defenders of Shiite autonomy). It is not his vision of everyday life (do Right Arabists even care?).
The problem with Sadr is that he continues to demand US withdrawal from Iraq.
According to a September 13, 2006 Associated Press report (via the Guardian), Sadr made has once again made a push for US withdrawal.
A group of lawmakers tried to take advantage Tuesday of the unpopularity of U.S. troops among many Shiite and Sunni legislators to seek approval of a resolution setting a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops – which the mainstream Shiite-dominated government has so far refused to do.
Sponsored by supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and some Sunni Arabs, the resolution managed to get 104 signatures in the 275-member parliament before was effectively shelved by being sent to a committee for review.
The Associated Press report suggests that the Shiite-dominated government has refused to support a demand for US withdrawal. True enough. But according to some reports, it was Sadr’s erstwhile ally on partition–the Sunni Arab Speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mahmud Al Mashhadani–that scuttled the resolution.
Wasn’t Sadr’s participation in the government–a government formed under the watchful eyes of US military occupation–a sign that he was moderating his line on US withdrawal?
Sadr looks increasingly “Leninist” in his approach to participation in government. Here is one of his key aides, Mustafa Yaqoubi, in an interview for another Ellen Knickmeyer Washington Post profile by Sudarsan Raqhavan and Ellen Knickmeyer on Sadr entitled, “Sadr, A Question Mark in Black.”
“We have entered a political game,” said Yaqoubi, who wore a black turban signifying his descent from the prophet Muhammad. “We entered this government to use it as a weapon to make pressure on the occupiers.”
Maybe it is too obvious to have to say, but the “problem” with Sadr–apart from any of his complex relations with sectarian factionalism–is that he and his movement appears to be relentlessly opposed to the US occupation as a matter of…dare I say it?…principle.
If so, his nationalist principles–and credentials–are even more intense than those of Sunni Arab policians like Parliamentary speaker Mahmud Al Mashhadani.