Sadr: Confrontation or Cooptation?

Posted by Cutler on January 19, 2007

In a prior post, I noted that Reuel Marc Gerecht over at the Right Zionist American Enterprise Institute was quite adamant that the US should not inaugurate a new, aggressive counter-insurgency campaign with direct confrontation with Sadr.

It now appears that the US (and Prime Minister Maliki) has gone ahead–pace Gerecht (and Cheney?)–and launched a crackdown on Sadr’s organization, including at least one high level leader.  CNN is reporting:

In an overnight raid, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops captured a top aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in eastern Baghdad, the militia’s spokesman told CNN Friday.

The spokesman said Sheikh Abdul al-Hadi Darraji — the director of Sadr’s main offices in Sadr City — was arrested at a mosque in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Belediyat, just outside Sadr City.

A U.S. military statement Friday did not name Darraji specifically but did announce U.S. and Iraqi forces had arrested a “high-level, illegal armed group leader” blamed for kidnapping, torturing and killing Iraqi civilians while heading an “illegal armed group punishment committee.”

In addition, the “armed group leader” is suspected of working with “death squad commanders” and armed group cells that practice sectarian revenge killings in Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Wednesday that security forces in recent days cracked down on the Mehdi Army. He said 400 arrests were made.

The last time the US moved against a top aide to Sadr, back in April 2004, the capture sparked a Shiite uprising in Baghdad.

At several points in 2006, the US has been to the brink of a renewed confrontation with Sadr.  But each move has been short-circuited.

Is the US now courting a full confrontation with Shiite Baghdad?  If so, it is not hard to imagine how a Shiite rebellion might ensue and how this uprising, in turn, might lead the US and some elements of the Sunni political elite to call for the formation of a “national salvation government”–an anti-Shiite coup–to quell the unrest and “restore order.”

In another scenario, Sadr himself has given the green light for Maliki’s move against Sheikh Abdul al-Hadi Darraji, not only to appease the US but also to let US forces battle rogue forces within his own Mahdi Army militia.

The US is suggesting that Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji has links to Abu Diraa, the figure I have been calling the Keyser Söze of Sadr City.  The Associated Press makes the link:

“The suspect allegedly leads various illegal armed group operations and is affiliated with illegal armed group cells targeting Iraqi civilians for sectarian attacks and violence,” [a military] statement read, adding he was believed to be affiliated with Baghdad death squad commanders, including Abu Diraa, a Shiite militia leader who has gained a reputation for his brutality.

The AP story also includes a threat from Sadrists in Najaf of a violent backlash:

Abdul-Razzaq al-Nidawi, an al-Sadr aide in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, demanded that al-Darraji and other detainees from the cleric’s movement, be released and called for demonstrations after the weekly Friday prayer services.

“America is playing with fire and our patience is beginning to fade,” he said. “This savage barbarian act will not pass peacefully.”

But Reuters reports that the Sadrists disavowed a violent response:

The U.S. military said in a statement that Iraqi special forces backed by American advisers seized an unnamed man they described as a death squad leader wanted for kidnap, torture and murder and linked to fugitive Shi’ite warlord Abu Deraa.

Aides to Sadr said the man held was Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, a prominent media spokesman for their movement. An official in Sadr’s political office branded his detention a deliberate “provocation” but said they would not respond with violence.

Gerecht has suggested that Sadr “may play along.”  But that idea was predicated on a US campaign that began by targeting the Sunni insurgency, not the Shia of Sadr City.

This move against al-Darraji makes it seem like the point of the “surge” is to take on the Shia.  Even at the level of appearances, this move could provoke a Shiite backlash–a rebellion that extends beyond the control of Muqtada al-Sadr.

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