GETTING TO KNOW YOU…Like Dr. iRack, I found Dexter Filkins’ review of Patrick Cockburn’s new book on Moqtada al-Sadr to be well worth the read (don’t agree with everything Filkins or Cockburn write, but overall, insightful). This is a pretty good summary of the persistent condition of ignorance vis-a-vis Sadr that has been so prevalent amongst US policymakers:

Muqtada al-Sadr stands for everything in Iraq that we do not understand. The exiles we imported to run the country following Saddam’s fall are suave and well-dressed; Muqtada is glowering and elusive. The exiles parade before the cameras in the Green Zone; Muqtada stays in the streets, in the shadows, surfacing occasionally to give a wild sermon about the return of the hidden twelfth imam. The Americans proclaim Muqtada irrelevant; his face adorns the walls of every teashop in Shiite Iraq. The Americans attack; Muqtada disappears. The Americans offer a deal, and Muqtada responds: only after you leave.

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr? What does he want? And how many divisions does he have? That we know so little so late about someone so central to the fate of Iraq is an indictment of anyone associated with the American endeavor there. But it is also a measure of Iraq itself: of its complexity, its mutability, its true nature as an always-spinning kaleidoscope of alliances, deals, and double- crosses. Muqtada al-Sadr is not merely a mirror of our ignorance, he is also a window onto the unforgiving land where we have seen so many of our fortunes disappear.

Administration policymakers have ignored, underestimated and prematurely written off Sadr since before the invasion (when few, if any, even knew who he was), to immediately after the invasion (when he was dismissed as an insignificant rabble rouser not worthy of attention), through a series of clashes with US forces and subsequent poltical maneuvers (after and during which Bush administration officials and their supporters have proclaimed Sadr and his movement dead so many times that cat’s stare in awe at his innumerable lives).

Even now, there is much buzz about the impact of the recent anti-Sadr operations in Basra and Sadr City – with many pointing to the fact that Iraqi government forces are in both places as a sign of Sadr’s diminishing relevance. I would caution against putting too much stock into that reading.

Some basic facts to consider: the Sadrist trend is generally estimated as comprising between 3-5 million Iraqis. That would put his movement in the range of 15-20% of the entire Iraqi population (especially when you consider that, due to the relatively modest means of his constituents, few Sadrists were among the massive exodus of some 2 million wealthier Iraqis that fled the country as refugees).

Though not a cleric yet himself, Moqtada is the heir to a well respected and immensely popular clerical lineage that dates back many decades (his father and father’s cousin were extremely influential Grand Ayatollahs). Beyond the sheer numbers of his constituency, Sadr represents a social movement (and an effective network that distributes vital services to millions of poorer Iraqis) and brand of religious millenarianism (Mahdism) that has a rich and lengthy tradition throughout Iraq’s Shiite-dominated south (the latter, with literally centuries of history). The Fadhila Party that dominates Basra is itself an off-shoot of the Sadrist trend that emerged after the assassination of Moqtada’s father – just to give you a sense of its reach.

Thus, it is entirely unrealistic to believe, as the Bush administratoin apparently does, that the Sadrist trend can be neutralized militarily, or marginalized through intra-Shiite political maneuvering. Despite recent gains made against Sadr’s militia, Sadr’s endgame involves exerting his considerable influence via the ballot box and through popular appeals. The US would be far better served by coming to grips with his clout and attempting to normalize relations with his movement, rather than trying to ignore it or adopt policies that amount to wishful thinking. If the US continues to target Sadr and his followers, in the end, such hostility will only harden anti-American attitudes, radicalize the Mahdist movement (and cause dangerous splinter groups to break off) and help weaken one of the truly nationalistic, anti-Iranian forces in Iraqi Shiite politics.

That last point, I would say, represents the other great misunderstanding about the Sadrist movement – its reputed ties to Iran. Actually, I’m not sure it’s a misunderstanding as much as useful propaganda adopted by the Bush administration in order to further a political agenda (permanent bases, heavy foreign involvement in the oil industry) that Sadr opposes. In this, the Bush administration has made common cause with Iraqi political parties (ISCI/Dawa) that have much stronger ties to Iran than Sadr. But that is a rather inconvenient and awkward position, so instead of acknowledging the reality of the situation, we adopt a fictitious narrative. But there is a potential for self-fulfilling prophesy: in targeting and isolating Sadr, we are pushing him closer to Iran by denying him viable alternatives.

I haven’t had the time to read Cockburn’s book on Sadr yet, but I have read this extremely informative piece by Reidar Visser. Visser’s work is a valuable tool in overcoming the ignorance surrounding Sadr and his movement that Filkins describes. I’ll post an excerpt below the fold that touches on some of the issues mentioned above, but I highly recommend the entire piece.

The problem in this is the character of the “rejection of Iran” referred to by Bush as a supposed attribute of the Maliki government. A brief glance at photos of the frequent and amicable meetings between top ISCI officials and Iranian leaders immediately sows doubts about the realities of that “rejection.” Similarly, studies of the run-up to the Basra operations against the Sadrists show that some of the “Iraqi” parties routinely accused of having intimate links to the Iranian revolutionary guards – such as the Sayyid al-Shuhada movement – played a role alongside ISCI in instigating the Maliki government to escalate its operations against the supposedly “pro-Iranian” Sadrists. Only weeks prior to the operations, the only Iraqi group that was talking about pushing its enemies “back to Iran” was the Sadrists. By April, even mainstream Western media reports suggested, albeit belatedly, that perhaps ISCI and their scheme of a single Shiite federal region could after all be Iran’s number one priority in Iraq. In short, there is still very little hard evidence that indicates any change in the longstanding historical image of ISCI as Iran’s primary partner in Iraq and the Sadrists as Iran’s primary challenge – a situation with which Tehran deals shrewdly through dividing and ruling the Sadrists as much as possible through the creation of “special” splinter groups (about which Sadrists complained as early as in April 2007), while at the same time maintaining fallback strategies, such as operating a television channel in Arabic (al-Alam) that allows articulation of both the Sadrist and the ISCI point of view.

Nevertheless, US policy has been the logical opposite of Tehran’s strategy of spreading the bets, namely, to persevere with one particular set-up – a coalition of “sectarian moderates” supposedly representing an imagined trinity of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But two out of the three main components of this coalition (i.e. the “Shiite” ISCI and the “Sunni” Tawafuq) enjoy only limited popular backing in the constituencies they purport to represent. Despite all the spin, key Sunni and Shiite groups outside the government (including for instance Fadila) remain sceptical of Maliki’s methods against the Sadrists, and while Basrawis certainly seem to appreciate the strengthened presence of the Iraqi army in their area, this in itself does not mean that support for the Maliki coalition as a political force is growing. Even the higher ranking ulama (and Sistani himself) have reportedly signalled that any move to marginalize any particular party in the next elections would be unacceptable. Against this background, the emerging US reconstruction project in Iraq increasingly comes across as a colossus with feet of clay: only Kurdistan is being represented in government by politicians who enjoy widespread popular backing; substantial segments of the Arab population are either being bombed into submission (the Sadrists) or bribed and armed (the Sunnis) instead of becoming genuinely integrated in national politics; finally, in the absence of a grand political compromise that could secure durable peace and healing across sectarian divides, Iraq’s capital city itself is being compartmentalised with concrete barriers, despite complaints by many Iraqis who think that physical separation is no adequate substitute for true reconciliation.

Despite all this, Washington consistently refuses to rethink its basic choice of Iraqi partners (ISCI and the Kurds), and appears to continue to eschew any serious contact with those Shiite groups in Iraq that “reject” Iran – Bush’s term – in a far more convincing manner: the Fadila party, “moderate” Sadrists and independent Shiite figures (both secularists and Islamists) who all repeatedly have made calls for assistance against Iranian infiltration in Iraq’s security forces, and have asked for help to cope with the pressures they are being exposed to due to their anti-Iranian attitudes. More plausible approximations of the dictionary definition of “rejection” include accusing Iran of death threats (as the Fadila governor of Basra has repeatedly done), criticising the “Iranian occupation of Iraq” to the press (a frequent complaint by Fadila members of the Basra council), accusing Shiite parties of having their headquarters in Iran (the latest charge by Wail Abd al-Latif, a Shiite secularist from Basra) or even setting fire to the Iranian consulate in Basra (followers of the small Sadrist group of Mahmud al-Hasani have reportedly been involved in this). But despite a catalogue of political demands that are shared by a high number of independent experts on Iraqi affairs – a timetable for US withdrawal, a negotiated settlement of Kirkuk, early provincial elections, prudence in the federalism question – such genuinely anti-Iranian elements among the Shiites continue to receive very limited attention from the United States, whether from Democrats or Republicans.

The ironic result is that in the end, even these Shiite Iraqi nationalist groups will have nowhere else to go than Iran. It is of course understandable that Washington may dislike the prospect of Muqtada al-Sadr’s strict Islamism becoming ascendant in the new Iraq. But that kind of reasoning misses the point in three ways. In the first place, the main Shiite alternative, ISCI, has been equally involved in the Islamisation of Iraq after 2003, even if they are more professional than the Sadrists in handling their reputation when they deal with the Western media, and sometimes also rely on proxy-like groups, like “Hizbollah in Iraq” and Tharallah.

Secondly, the Sadrists can offer something to other Iraqis which ISCI is unable to deliver due to its insistence on a Shiite federal region: national reconciliation that would appeal to a majority of Sunnis. (If Maliki is serious about dialogue with the Sunnis, he should stop boasting about “going after the Sadrists” and instead start pressuring ISCI to take the scheme for a Shiite federal region off the agenda.) And thirdly, to include the Sadrists in the political process is not the same as making Muqtada al-Sadr the next premier of Iraq, and also does not imply a green light to the sort of extremist vigilantism perpetrated by Sadrists in Basra. Rather, the most likely outcome would be a change in the dynamics of Iraqi politics, back to a more nationalist and centrist atmosphere. This in turn could bring to the fore new leaders and new political formulas that simply do not have a chance in today’s Iraq, where the political game is largely controlled by a minority of returned exiles who insist on a more sectarian, ethno-federal approach to Iraqi politics. It would be the sort of change that could produce a new Iraq more in touch with the long lines of its own history and hence more stable; dialogue with the Sadrists is as central to this kind of outcome as negotiations with Hamas is in the Palestinian question and as engagement with Hizbollah is in Lebanon.

Finally, it is high time that Washington understands that Muqtada al-Sadr was driven to Iran in 2007 as the result of threatening US policies, not as a consequence of any longstanding warm relations between him and Tehran. More mistakes like this could deprive the United States of one of the last chances to salvage the political process in Iraq, and might also unleash some of the most destructive forces that exist in southern Iraq. The consequences for the geopolitics of the world’s largest belt of oil resources could be devastating.