December 20, 2007

Sadr May Extend Sidelining

Moqtada al-Sadr may keep the Mahdi Army on the sidelines for another period of months. Apparently satisfied with the impact his unilateral cease-fire has had on his fortunes, Sadr may instead focus on his religious studies while mothballing his Shi'ite militia. The news has some scratching their heads:

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is considering extending a freeze on the activities of his powerful Mehdi Army militia, his official spokesman said.

"Yes, there is a chance that the freeze on the Mehdi Army will be extended," Salah al-Ubaidy told Reuters late on Wednesday.

Ubaidy did not say how long another extension might last or why the group was thinking of extending a freeze that U.S. commanders say has helped ease overall levels of violence in Iraq.

Sadr, who led uprisings against U.S. troops in 2004 and whose militia were later described by U.S. commanders as their greatest threat, surprised both Iraqis and U.S. forces when he ordered the initial six-month freeze on his militia in August.

Sadr has proven a wily foe in Iraq, and one has to wonder what he hopes to gain from this decision. No one really understood his sudden decision to adopt the cease-fire, either, except that he had already tried fighting a smaller American force and lost badly. Sadr didn't want to give the US another reason to go after him personally, and in fact fled the country when the surge started.

For that matter, what do his followers gain? When Sadr fled the country, people expected them to drop out in confusion and disgust, but that didn't happen. He kept his militia together during a major purge, in which he eliminated elements that refused to follow his stand-down orders. Now he's hinting that he may never use them as a militia, and they seem content for the moment to follow that order, too.

One hint may be in his new enthusiasm for his religious studies. He has long wanted to be taken seriously as a cleric, but lacked the formal training that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has, as well as his standing. Sadr, who got marginalized by Nouri al-Maliki this year as a politician, wants to extend his influence through Islam, and it looks like he's willing to be patient about it. The question will be whether he decides to follow the path of Sistani in taking a "quiet" approach to Shi'a and governing, or whether he wants to become another Ruhollah Khomeini.

The continuing existence of the Mahdi Army suggests the latter, as does his continuous engagement with Teheran. He may stop being a problem for us now -- but in ten years, he may lead a coup attempt to make Iraq into an Arabic Iran.


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