Moqtada al-Sadr has never shown himself to be much of a military genius. One of his first forays into the war in Iraq got scathing reviews from John Burns in April 2004, who got an unplanned visit with his forces. Now Sabrina Tavernise reports for the New York Times that Sadr has lost command over a significant portion of his Mahdi Army and can no longer impose his discipline on it:
The radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has lost control of portions of his Mahdi Army militia that are splintering off into freelance death squads and criminal gangs, a senior coalition intelligence official said Wednesday.
The question of how tightly Mr. Sadr holds the militia, one of the largest armed groups in Iraq, is of critical importance to American and Iraqi officials. Seeking to ease the sectarian violence raging across the country, they have pressed him to join the political process and curb his fighters, who see themselves as defenders of Shiism — and often as agents of vengeance against Sunnis.
But as Mr. Sadr has taken a more active role in the government, as many as a third of his militiamen have grown frustrated with the constraints of compromise and have broken off, often selling their services to the highest bidders, said the official, who spoke to reporters in Baghdad on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak publicly on intelligence issues.
“When Sadr says you can’t do this, for whatever political reason, that’s when they start to go rogue,” the official said. “Frankly, at that point, they start to become very open to alternative sources of sponsorship.” The official said that opened the door to control by Iran.
Sadr has never covered himself in glory on the battlefield, and this demonstrates that his strength may be largely illusory. Some Shi’ites like his ability to attack Sunnis, but it appears now that he may be getting too much credit. The Mahdi Army has a weak command structure and the operations it conducts look more like free-lancing as a rule. Under those circumstances, the surprise isn’t that some have spun off their own operations, but that he could wield much power at all.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has more respect and devotion from the Shi’ites than Sadr. Sadr has political power, but only because Sistani refused to enter into electoral politics. Sadr’s weak position prompted him to align with Iran — which would have been natural in any case — but it has brought unintended consequences. The Sunnis have realized that Iran would have too much power with Sadr in control, and now they want the Americans to stick around. Sistani would have counseled self-sufficiency and independence from Iran, but Sadr argues for Teheran’s influence.
Once again, we see that Sadr has a bigger reputation than he’s due. Whether his Shi’ite allies who reject Iran see this, we don’t know. If they do, they may start arranging for a one-way ticket to his 72 virgins.