Monday, December 10, 2007

What will be Muqtada al-Sadr's next move?

Three months ago, Iraqi nationalist and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his 60,000 strong Mahdi Army to stand down for six months and not attack American forces during that time. Sectarian violence and American casualties have both dropped as a result of the stand down. In the intervening time not much has been heard from him.

Last week he issued a vehemently anti-American statement. "Get out of our land," he wrote on Friday. "We don't need you or your armies, the armies of darkness; not your airplanes, tanks, policies, meddling, democracy, fake freedom." Still, he told his increasingly impatient followers to continue to stand down, and take no actions beyond praying in a Mosque for two hours after sundown.

Now, American forces and Iraqis alike await with bated breath his next move. He stands at something of a precipice. What he does next could fundamentally alter his relationship with his followers, who are increasingly impatient with the arming of their Sunni rivals by American forces, as well as with other Iraqi leaders.

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From McClatchy:

Nevertheless, said Hazem al Araji, an aide to Sadr, the Mahdi Army ceasefire is likely to extend beyond the planned six months. While this would please U.S. commanders and many Iraqis, it would bolster Sadr only if his followers agree that they're likely to gain more by keeping their weapons in their closets than they are by pulling them out again.

"There is an entity in the Sadr trend that doesn't want the freeze," said Sheik Naza al Timini, a Sadr cleric in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad. "They said, 'We have the right to use violence and force.' We always hope for good, and we hope that the decision of Sayed Muqtada will be for the best of Iraq, but after he gives his final decision about the future of the Mahdi Army, many, I believe, will change their ideology and choose to leave the Sadr trend."

"What he did was basically pull the rug out — 'You can continue acting as the mafia, as the mob, but not in my name,' " said Peter Harling, a Sadr expert at the International Crisis Group. "It worked remarkably well, but I don't know how sustainable this can be. (His followers) appear extremely frustrated, willing to comply with Muqtada's decision, but not for very long."

If Sadr should recant on the ceasefire - or lose control of his Mahdi Army to rebellious commanders - the result would likely be a return to sectarian violence, and that would make it difficult for the United States to continue drawing down forces to pre-Surge™ levels, especially if it brought a renewal of attacks against American forces.

United States military commanders have made a conscious effort to tone down their rhetoric and show al-Sadr respect by using the title "Sayed" before his name, and by referring to the cease fire as a pledge of honor. "Since we don't have a direct dialogue with him, this is our way of reaching out," said a U.S. military intelligence official.

"I hope he will go on like this, not fighting, but trying to use political means against Americans or against the government," said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman.

Last Friday, after prayers in Sadr City, 300 women dressed in black from head-to-toe held signs and banners and moved slowly down a quiet, narrow street toward a billboard-sized portrait of the cleric. They were protesting the presence of American troops in their country, and the detention of hundreds of Iraqi Shiites who are loyal to al-Sadr.

"Anything that comes from Sayed Muqtada is good for us," said one of the protesting women, Hannah al Rubaye, using the honorific title for descendents of the prophet Mohammed. "After this step, we expect other orders from Sayed Muqtada. Patience has limits."

While everyone keeps a watchful eye toward Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr's next move, Iraqi politicians are pushing their own agendas, and al-Sadr's owm restless followers, are so far maintaining their allegiance. Tentatively.