January 26, 2007

Slippery Sadr Triangulates Again

Guess who's endorsing the Bush surge strategy in Iraq now? One of the intended targets of the enforcement effort in Baghdad, Moqtada al-Sadr has issued an endorsement of the new push to rid the capital of sectarian violence as long as Iraqis remain in command of the mission:

Muqtada Sadr, the radical anti-American cleric, has backed away from confrontation with U.S. and Iraqi forces in recent weeks, a move that has surprised U.S. officials who long have characterized his followers as among the greatest threats to Iraq's security.

Thursday, a leader of the Sadr movement in one of its Baghdad strongholds publicly endorsed President Bush's new Iraq security plan, which at least some U.S. officials have touted as a way to combat Sadr's group.

"We will fully cooperate with the government to make the plan successful," said Abdul-Hussein Kaabai, head of the local council in the Shiite Muslim-dominated Sadr City neighborhood. "If it is an Iraqi plan done by the government, we will cooperate."

Over the last several weeks, the Shiite cleric and his followers have dropped their threats to quit Iraq's U.S.-backed government, and after years of shunning the "occupier," they have allowed their emissaries to meet with U.S. officials.

This shouldn't surprise anyone. It recalls what Sadr did in the aftermath of his defeat in Najaf, which was to supposedly renounce sectarian violence and enter political life. Two years later, he heads one of the most virulent private armies, and the US and Iraq have had to attack it frontally in order to end its terrorism, and Sadr has reacted true to form. The US and Iraq need to finish the job this time, regardless of Sadr's political tapdancing.

However useless Sadr's endorsement might be, it does demonstrate that the new strategy has had its intended effect. Sadr would not be backpedaling and trying to cut deals if the new efforts hadn't done significant damage to his operations. He's looking for a political solution precisely because we have attacked the Mahdis as a military problem -- and Sadr knows that the Mahdis can easily be beaten on that basis. Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing US ambassador, noted the difference between a change of heart and a change of tactics, and Sadr has proven himself a master of the latter and allergic to the former.

The new surge strategy threatens far more than Sadr's position in Baghdad. His forces have infiltrated local governments in the south, and they have done nothing but destabilize the communities and engage in corruption ever since. Some of them have been in open rebellion against the same Iraqi security forces that Sadr now purports to endorse in Baghdad. If Sadr suffers a political blow, he may well lose his grip on his base, which would mean the end of his political hopes and perhaps the end of his Iranian sponsorship.

We need to keep the pressure on Sadr. Nouri al-Maliki will find a compromise tempting, but we have to make sure we finish the job against Sadr this time. If we don't, we'll either have to start from scratch again at some point or leave Iraq to the Iranians.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Please note that unverified Disqus users will have comments held in moderation. Please visit Disqus to register and verify your account. Comments from verified users will appear immediately.