The New York Times reports on the Mahdi Army’s slow destruction in Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr, once one of the most powerful men in Iraq, and Tehran’s favorite agent, has all but disappeared from the world stage. His Jaish al-Mahdi “militia” has also largely disappeared. Their control over Iraqi life and politics has faded, and even in Sadr City (name for Moqtada’s wiser father), the Mahdi Army no longer have unfettered control.
There is no doubt that this is a phenomenal success, driven in large part by the Iraqis themselves. Al-Sadr’s band of thugs were a major threat for the last four years, and it is only because of the gathering strength of the Iraqi Army and government that the Sadrists have been sidelined.
The surge was also a major contributing factor. What was driving the Shi’ite militias was fear: the Shi’a had every reason to fear that groups like al-Qaeda would kill them. Decades of being ground under Saddam Hussein’s bootheel was enough to teach them that survival could only be found in strength. The Mahdi Army offered protection when no one else could. Even though they were thugs and criminals, they had their uses.
As al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated, there was no longer a need for the Mahdi Army. They did not offer protection, but became little more than a greedy criminal syndicate. As the Times explains:
One young man said that even though his house was right across from a distribution center that sold cooking gas, he was not allowed to buy it there at state prices, but instead was forced to wait for a militia-affiliated distributor who sold it at higher prices.
“We had to get our share of the cooking gas from Mahdi Army people,” Um Hussein said. “Now, everything is available. We are free to buy what we want.”
Small changes like freeing up the supply of cooking oil can make a huge difference. These are signs that the new Iraq is being born. This new Iraq will not be free of problems—if anything it faces great long-term challenges like fighting corruption—but it is not the country on the brink of civil war that it once was.
It wasn’t all that long ago that this war was declared to be lost, and weak-willed politicians were calling for Iraq to be handed over to men like Moqtada al-Sadr. For all the mistakes that were made in Iraq, the one mistake that was thankfully not made was to give in to pessimism and fear. Even a dangerous man like Moqtada al-Sadr is nothing compared to the will of a people to live their lives free of fear and intimidation.