Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sadr's strategy

By Michael J.W. Stickings

This is from an intriguing new piece at the BBC:

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani says the Shia militia known as the Mahdi Army has stopped its activities on the orders of its leader, Moqtada Sadr.

The president described this as a new phenomenon, and a positive response to the new Iraqi-US security plan...


"People now are cooperating with government forces against terrorism as part of the security plan," Mr Talabani said.

"Not to mention the fact that the Mahdi Army has become inactive. Apparently the instructions of brother Moqtada Sadr have been effective, whereby there are no longer complaints by brother Sunni Arabs about attacks against them like before."

Okay, let's think about this for a moment.

According to Talabani, Iraq's Kurdish president, Sadr has responded to the U.S.-led Baghdad surge in a positive way, that is, by inactivating his militia, described by the U.S. (according to the BBC) as "the greatest threat to security in Iraq". According to Talabani, then, the surge is working in part because it has brought about this positive development.

There are a number of problems with this analysis of the situation.

First, there continues to be widespread insurgent terrorism. There are frequent bombings, some of them on a massive scale, and the death toll continues to be high.

Second, the "people" to whom Talabani refers may only be those people who are benefitting directly from the surge. Whatever the pro-war spin, after all, the surge is being led by the U.S. with the support of Iraq's essentially Shiite sectarian government -- Talabani is the president, but Maliki, a Shiite, is the prime minister, and the government is dominated by Shiites; the Kurds are minor partners, but their goal is an independent Kurdistan in the north, and it can hardly be said that Sunni have bought into this new, post-Saddam Iraq. If anything, they are opposed to the current government in Baghdad. Shiites may be cooperating out of sectarian self-interest, not out of some newfound magnanimity in support of some future Iraqi democratic utopia where all three major sectarian groups get along peacefully.

Third, Talabani is assuming -- naively, I think -- that Sadr's motives are pure, that he has backed down out of deference to these supposed efforts to establish peace. But what if Sadr has rather backed down temporarily for strategic reasons? For that would make sense. The surge may in theory and in spin be an effort to pacify Baghdad, but, to repeat, it is being supported by Maliki, Iraq's Shiite leader. Maliki has long been close to Sadr. In backing down, that is, in inactivating his militia, Sadr accomplishes a number of strategic goals:

1) He boosts his ally Maliki's position atop the government. Maliki's relations with the U.S. improve and Maliki looks better all around for having seemingly gotten his ally to back down, enabling him to consolidate his power in Baghdad. And it is surely in Sadr's interest for Maliki to be in a position to consolidate his power.

2) He avoids bearing much of the brunt of the U.S.-led surge. In inactivating his militia, he protects it for future action. Biding his time, he secures his own position in post-U.S. Iraq. Why fight the U.S., after all? Why not wait until the U.S. has left -- and left behind a sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad run by his ally, Maliki? Why not hold out to fight the Sunnis more freely?

3) He essentially directs the surge at the Sunni insurgency. Instead of fighting the Sunnis himself, he lets the U.S. and official Iraqi troops do the dirty work for him. If the Sunni insurgency is severely weakened in the surge, which may be doubtful but a possibility nonetheless, his position in post-U.S. Iraq is strengthened.

There is a shocking lack of perspective in the BBC piece, but there is a shocking lack of perspective generally. What is certain is that Sadr hasn't suddenly become a good liberal democrat who looks forward to the day when Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds can all play together happily in a new Iraq that has transcended its sectarian divisions. He may have backed down, but he has only done so out of narrow self-interest. It's a calculated strategy, and it's a pretty smart one.

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