The Slow Death Of Moqtada Al-Sadr

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.

The Battle For Basra

The Iraqi Army is engaged in a major action against Shi’ite militias in the southern Iraqi city of Basra as radical “cleric” Moqtada al-Sadr is calling for “civil disobedience” against the Iraqi government:

The clashes came as Sadr’s movement mounted a nationwide civil disobedience campaign in many parts of eastern and central Baghdad, demanding the release of Sadr’s followers from detention centers and an end to Iraqi government raids. Sadrist leaders ordered stores to be shut down and taxi and bus drivers to stop operating. Television footage Tuesday showed neighborhoods turned into virtual ghost towns, their usually busy streets all but empty.

In a statement, Sadr called upon Iraqis to stage sit-ins and threatened a nationwide “civil revolt” if U.S. and Iraqi forces continue attacking and arresting his followers.

The actions were the latest sign that the ceasefire imposed by Sadr on his Mahdi Army militia is under strain.

Al-Sadr is worried: he renewed his “cease fire” recently, but now the radicals are losing confidence in his leadership. Over the period of the cease fire, several splinter groups decided to ignore his orders and launched attacks against the Iraqis and the coalition. Now it appears that al-Sadr is trying to placate those who want more action. There’s a huge risk in that: al-Sadr risks losing popular support by undermining the security gains of the last year and risks the dismantling of his organization at the hands of the Iraqi Police and Army.

That’s precisely what needs to happen. Moqtada al-Sadr has been a thorn in the side of Iraqi peace for far too long. Having the Iraqi government take him down, rather than the coalition, is the best option in terms of minimizing the fallout. Al-Sadr’s actions have indicated that he wants to be a terrorist rather than a politician, and he should be treated accordingly.

If Moqtada al-Sadr were such a great leader beloved by the Iraqis, he wouldn’t need to be hiding in Iran. The fact that al-Sadr seems unwilling or unable to show his face in Iraq is itself suggestive of his lack of power. His rise to power was based on the threat of Sunni militants—with al-Qaeda in Iraq being rolled back more and more each day, there’s little need for his “services.”

With luck, this will be the ignominious end of Moqtada al-Sadr—a marginalized figure being groomed for Iran for a position he’ll never be able to take. His Mahdi Army crushed, his followers disenchanted, his movement disbanded, al-Sadr will be unable to threaten Iraq’s peace and stability again. It is important that the young Iraqi state crush this rebellion—as important as George Washington putting down the Whiskey Rebellion was in our early history. The state must have the monopoly of violence to legitimize itself, and al-Sadr’s attempt at rebellion will ensure that the Iraqi government establishes quite clearly that it will defend itself from attack by undemocratic forces.