SO HOW IS MUQTADA AL-SADR REALLY DOING?….Iraqi politics is pretty opaque. That’s not because they play a deeper game than anyone else, just that they play a game that few Westerners are privy to. This means that there’s an awful lot of guesswork about who’s up, who’s down, and what’s really going on behind the scenes.

So, with that throat clearing out of the way, how is “firebrand cleric” and U.S. bête noire Muqtada al-Sadr really doing these days? The bulk of the evidence, I think, suggests that he’s doing OK. He seems well positioned to win the October elections in the southern provinces; his Mahdi Army held its own in the recent government offensive in Basra; Prime Minister Maliki’s colleagues eventually had to send emissaries to Iran to sue for peace; Sadr was the one dictating the terms for an end to violence; and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has apparently declined to ask him to disarm. Put all this together, and Sadr looks to be in a fairly strong position.

But what about the evidence pointing in the other direction? For starters, the Iraqi National Security Council released an emphatically anti-Sadr statement this weekend that was supported by virtually every Iraqi faction except the Sadrists themselves. The AP dispatch I linked to last night suggested that even the leader of the Sadrists in parliament took this seriously:

“We, the Sadrists, are in a predicament,” lawmaker Hassan al-Rubaie said Sunday. “Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament.”

….President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said Sunday that the statement was adopted after “heated, cordial, frank and transparent discussion,” Al-Rubaie and another Sadrist lawmaker who attended objected to the call for militias to disband, he said.

Al-Rubaie confirmed Talabani’s account and said “our political isolation was very clear and real during the meeting.”

What else? There’s also some (very tentative) evidence that Iran might be taking Maliki’s side in his attempt to weaken the Mahdi Army:

Iran voiced support on Monday for Iraq’s prime minister in a crackdown on a Shi’ite militia but blamed U.S. forces for civilian deaths in the fighting.

….[Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali] Hosseini, whose comments were translated by Iran’s state Press TV satellite station, said Maliki’s action was aimed at “confronting illegal armed groups” and this was in the interest of Iraq and its neighbors.

Now, Iran supports both Sadr’s Mahdi Army and ISCI’s Badr Organization, which is affiliated with Maliki’s Dawa Party (and therefore, ironically, with us). However, Iran’s primary proxy is unquestionably ISCI (which is, yes, doubly ironic), and it’s at least possible that they may view the current turmoil as a good opportunity to begin the process of withdrawing support from Sadr and backing ISCI more wholeheartedly.

Then there’s Ryan Crocker’s comment today suggesting that the rogue elements of the Mahdi Army (aka “Special Groups”) have linked back up with the mother organization. Eric Martin, who has a more devious imagination than I do, thinks the underlying truth of this assertion is less important than the fact that Crocker is asserting it:

What that signals to me is that Petraeus/Crocker are dropping the Special Groups pretense and are no longer probing a conciliatory track with Sadr. Petraeus/Crocker will resume pre-cease fire attempts to tar the entire Sadrist current with assorted sins — again, real and imagined. That, to me, looks like the rhetorical groundwork for a full-on confrontation, moreso than even the overly aggressive culling actions described above. A lifting of the cease-fire would be the logical next step if Crocker’s choice of words is as significant as I fear.

So: (1) Sadr’s political isolation may be increasing, (2) Iran may be thinking about reducing its support of Sadr, and (3) the U.S. military may be laying the groundwork for a full scale assault on the Mahdi Army.

This hardly bears repeating, but as with nearly all analysis of Iraq these days, this is mostly speculation. As near as I can tell, even regional experts don’t really know what’s going on in Iraq right now, and all the rest of us can do is keep our eyes and ears open and see what happens. All things considered, it still looks to me like Sadr’s organization is coming through the current fighting either intact or even a little stronger than before, but there’s evidence on both sides. So take this as a devil’s advocate post, and take it with the usual shaker of salt. And if anyone tells you that they know for sure what’s really happening in Iraq, that’s a good sign you should put them on your permanent “ignore” list.

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