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October 3, 2004
Moqtada Al-Sadr, The John Kerry Of Iraq

If one figure in Iraq could be said to be comical, even in a dark way, it would have to be the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Caught between the idiocy of his generalship and the poor fighting quality of his militias, he has at least three times decimated his Mahdi Army supporters by initiating hostilities against the US forces in Iraq. In Najaf, he almost completely wiped them out, only surviving thanks to a belated rescue by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wanted to save the Imam Ali mosque there from destruction.

Now, for at least the third time as well, Sadr has decided to create a political party instead of an army, only this time it looks like he means it. Not because he doesn't want to fight, but mostly because he's realized that he's incapable of it:

The Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has begun laying the groundwork to enter Iraq's nascent democratic process, telling Iraqi leaders that he is planning to disband his militia and possibly field candidates for office.

After weeks of watching his militia wither before American military attacks, Mr. Sadr has sent emissaries to some of Iraq's major political parties and religious groups to discuss the possibility of involving himself in the campaign for nationwide elections, according to a senior aide to Mr. Sadr and several Iraqi leaders who have met with him.

According to those Iraqis, Mr. Sadr says he intends to disband his militia, the Mahdi Army, and endorse the holding of elections. While Mr. Sadr has made promises to end his armed resistance before, some Iraqi officials believe that he may be serious this time, especially given the toll of attacks on his forces.

Don't get me wrong -- having Sadr convert his efforts to politics will be a major victory for the US on a number of levels, as even the New York Times' Dexter Filkins suggests. First, it removes a potential security problem for Iraqi and US forces in Iraq, especially in the Shi'ite areas that should be more sympathetic towards American forces. Second, it endorses the US/UK strategy for bringing peace through democracy. Third, it marginalizes any other insurgent movements as Sadr incorporates his efforts into the existing political system.

However, Sadr seems to be like one of those carnival games you see at the fair -- he marches in one direction until you plunk him with a rifle, then he reverses and goes until you plunk him again. He vacillates more on the future of Iraq than John Kerry does, although to be fair, that may be a bit of an exaggeration on Sadr's behalf. All of the about-faces Sadr has made cannot give his fellow Mahdis much confidence in either his political or military leadership, especially after he gave up the Imam Ali shrine. Other Shi'ite leaders note this as well:

For their part, the Shiite party leaders say they welcome Mr. Sadr's entry into the political fray but say he overestimates his popularity.

"He has no support," said Adil Abdul Madhi, the finance minister and a Sciri leader. "You will see that when his hold is broken in these neighborhoods, he will have no support."

Also, the Mahdis have yet to turn over the remnants of their heavy weapons as negotiated by the Iraqis and Sistani after the debacle of Najaf. Until that happens, the political tranformation is just a theoretical possibility and nothing more. Based on his past track record rather than his rational options, I'd guess that Sadr has one more really stupid flip-flop left in him.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 3, 2004 11:34 AM

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