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On Point

Whittling Away at Sadr


by Austin Bay
April 2, 2008

After his outlaw militiamen raised white flags and skedaddled from their latest round of combat with the Iraqi Army, radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr declared victory.

He always does. He understands media bravado. He wagers that survival bandaged by bombast and swathed in sensational headlines is a short-term triumph. Survive long enough, and Sadr bets he will prevail.

This time, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a contrarian press release, however, calling the Iraqi Army's anti-militia operations in southern Iraq a "success."

A dispute over casualties in the firefights has ensued, as it always does. An Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman alleged that Sadr's militia had been hit hard in six days of fighting, suffering 215 dead, 155 arrested and approximately 600 wounded. The government spokesman gave no casualty figures for Iraqi security forces.

No one, of course, could offer an independent confirmation, but if the numbers are accurate they provide an indirect confirmation of reports that Sadr's Mahdi Militia (Jaish al-Mahdi, hence the acronym JAM) had at least a couple thousand fighters scattered throughout southern Iraq. This is not shocking news, but a reason to launch a limited offensive when opportunity appeared.

Numbers, however, are a very limited gauge. The firefights, white flags, media debate and, for that matter, the Iraqi-led anti-militia offensive itself are the visible manifestations of a slow, opaque and occasionally violent political and psychological struggle that in the long term is likely democratic Iraq's most decisive: the control, reduction and eventual elimination of Shia gangs and terrorists strongly influenced if not directly supported by Iran.

Other Shia militia and gangs confront Iraq, but Sadr is the most vexing case. His father, a leading Shia cleric, was murdered -- many Iraqis believe at the order of Saddam Hussein. That makes his father a political and religious symbol.

And Sadr knows it. So do his financiers.

For four years, the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi government have intermittently sparred with Sadr, sometimes in parliament, sometimes in the streets.

The Iraqi government's strategy has been to bring former insurgents into the political process. Since interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi articulated that goal in mid-2004, the central government's complex array of enemies has sought to thwart that program.

Saddam's old cohorts managed to convince themselves that if they spread enough money around, killed enough people and hammered the U.S. electorate with bloody headlines the United States would leave and the Iraqi government would eventually collapse -- and they would return to power. Saddam's capture, trial and execution has all but snuffed out the old-line Baathists. Recall Maliki stoutly defended his decision to carry out the court's sentence of capital punishment. He bet with Saddam dead the tyrant's cult of personality would wither. It has.

Al-Qaida pursued the same strategy of blood for headlines. Al-Qaida in Iraq tried to ignite a sectarian war -- its now-dead emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, made that goal explicit in February 2004. Al-Qaida massacred en masse, to the point that U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D for Defeatist) declared the war in Iraq lost. Then, the Sunni tribes in Anbar turned on al-Qaida. Sunni political integration is by no means complete, but al-Qaida has failed.

Now the Shia-led Iraqi government focuses on its chief Shia nemesis. How the Iraqi government handles Sadr matters. In August 2004, Sadr's thugs grabbed the Grand Mosque in Najaf. Sadr was counting on Americans to bomb the mosque. The United States opted to follow the political lead of Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani's aides told 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."

The Iraqi way often appears to be indecisive, until you learn to look at its counter-insurgency methods in the frame of achieving political success, instead of the frame of American presidential elections.

In southern Iraq and east Baghdad, Sadr once again lost street face. Despite the predictable media umbrage, this translates into political deterioration.

Think of the Iraqi anti-Sadr method as a form of suffocation, a political war waged with the blessing of Ayatollah Sistani that requires daily economic and political action, persistent police efforts and occasional military thrusts.

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