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On Point

The Quiet War Against Muqtada Sadr


by Austin Bay
April 12, 2006

August 2004: The Battle of Najaf was raging, with Shia radical Muqtada Sadr's rogue Mahdi militia turning Najaf's imposing Imam Ali Mosque into a fortress -- the equivalent of an Irish Republican Army terror faction using the Vatican as a bunker.

Sadr thought his occupation of the mosque was a "no lose" scheme. Sadr believed the fact that he could take control of a major Shia shrine confirmed the Iraqi Interim Government's (IIG) fatal political and military weakness. Demonstrating IIG flimsiness enhanced Sadr's personal prestige and established him as the "radical alternative" to Iraqi democracy.

And when coalition forces attacked? Sadr calculated any attack would seriously damage the mosque. No matter who caused the damage (and "rumor" suggested Sadr's lieutenants might harm the mosque themselves), Sadr believed the world would blame the United States. Video imagery of the mosque's rubble --shown 24-7 on Al Jazeerah -- would turn any tactical military defeat into a strategic political victory.

Angry Iraqi Shias would damn the coalition. Iran (who backed Sadr financially and politically) would present itself as the protector of Shia Islam. When the IIG collapsed, Sadr would emerge as the leader of a new Shia state.

Late one afternoon in mid-August, I delivered a brief report to British Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham in his Al Faw Palace office (west of Baghdad). Graham, as deputy commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, had been deeply involved in directing the coalition's military response to Sadr's audacious move.

After discussing my report, Graham asked, "Remember what I said about Ayatollah Sistani?"

Graham was referring Iraq's leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. A week earlier, Graham had told me: "Sistani is a living example of an apolitical Islamic clergyman. He specifically says his role is that of spiritual guide."

I told Graham I recalled our conversation.

"He's central to resolving the situation Najaf," Graham said. He added that winning the global war against Islamist extremism meant that moderate Muslim clerics had to speak out, but -- and here's the quote I remember -- "The pro-democracy moderate Muslim cleric doesn't have to be found. That's Sistani. Fortunately, he is the most influential religious leader in Iraq."

Within two weeks, Sistani helped engineer a withdrawal of Sadr's militia from the mosque. Tactically (and with little media fanfare), coalition military units had mauled Sadr's militia. Superficially, Sadr had "lived to fight another day." But the mosque wasn't rubble. Damage to the mosque was blamed on Sadr's militiamen. (Iraqi police also found pornographic magazines left by Sadr's men inside the mosque.) The people of Najaf greeted coalition troops as liberators.

Sistani's aides told Iraqi and coalition officers: "Let us deal with Sadr. We know how to handle him and will do so. However, the coalition must not make him a martyr."

I left Iraq with the impression that Sistani's plan for handling Sadr would be a python-like squeeze only an Iraqi insider would fully understand.

Following the January 2005 election, Sadr joined Iraq's political process (though I noticed his militia kept its weapons). After parliamentary elections, Sadr gained control of nearly three-dozen seats and positioned himself as a kingmaker.

But that status appears to be short-lived. One indicator is the March 26 attack by Iraqi commandos on a Mahdi militia facility in Baghdad. The predictable media outrage lasted less than a week -- and Iraq's Interior Ministry pointed out it had acted to stop sectarian vigilantes. Sadr lost "street face" to the Interior Ministry -- and it appears Sadr's political position has subsequently deteriorated.

Outsiders -- including U.S. government officials -- can bewail the Iraqi parliament's lack of progress in forming a government, but since the middle of March I strongly suspect the hidden story has been the Interior Ministry and the Iraqi nationalists' war on Sadr. It's a quiet police and political war waged with the blessing of Ayatollah Sistani. Creating a strong and stable Iraqi government (the so-called "national rescue front") is the goal. Sistani has advised Shia leaders to make concessions to Sunnis in order to establish a "unity government." That's an action anathema to Sadr.

Has Sistani's python begun its final squeeze?

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