Some news headlines are suggesting that Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called his followers out into the streets for mass demonstrations, is now calling for “violence” against the US. Others suggest a more ambiguous call to “fight” the US.
So, is this the long-awaited renewal of a clash between Sadr and the US?
Maybe, but I seriously doubt it.
The Sadrist demonstrations in Iraq are more likely an attempt by the Mahdi Army leadership to deflect criticism from within its own ranks.
The call for the demonstrations was made following Sunni attacks on Shiite neighborhoods at the end of March.
Sadr’s refusal to endorse a violent response to the sectarian bloodletting can easily be interpreted by his own ranks as a refusal to retaliate against the Sunni sources of violence.
To cover his flank, Sadr must try to shift the focus from a sectarian axis to a nationalist axis.
This is no easy task, but it helps explain the decidedly nationalist flavor of the theater promoted by Sadr in late March:
Al-Sadr’s statement calling for a demonstration was read aloud by a senior member of al-Sadr’s movement, Sheikh Suhail al-Iqabi, on Friday in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood and elsewhere in Iraq…
“Hoist Iraqi flags atop homes, apartment buildings and government departments to show the sovereignty and independence of Iraq, and that you reject the presence of American flags and those of other nations occupying our beloved Iraq.”
All of this underscores one of the difficulties of the US-Sadrist embrace.
Assume, for the moment, that Sadr would prefer to have his own forces “go to ground” and allow the US “surge” in Baghdad those Sunni forces that attack Shiite slums.
Such a move puts Sadr at the mercy of the US and its ability to protect his own ranks.
The late March attacks on Sadr city demonstrated to Sadr’s own ranks the risks of depending on US forces for security.
Sadr doesn’t have many good options. He can unleash a sectarian thirst for vengeance within his own ranks or he can rely on the Americans for security against Sunni terror, even as he tries to reach out across the sectarian divide to (ultimately) form a united front against US occupation.
Ironically, the call for April 9 anti-American nationalist demonstrations may represent the clearest sign yet that Sadr is still placing his bet on the hope of security provided by the US.
One way to underscore the difficulty of Sadr’s position is to simply consider the extraordinarily long odds of that bet.
The US has, thus far, been hard pressed to protect Shiites from Sunni terror. And there appear to be limits to the Sunni appetite for a united front with Shiites so long as the Shia are seen to have inherited Iraq, courtesy of the US occupation.
Sadr’s best chance for Sunni-Shiite unity is to foment an Arab backlash against Kurdish efforts to make a grab for Kirkuk.
Perhaps this is the political unconscious of the Iraqi nationalism on display, courtesy of Sadr.