by Austin Bay
April 2, 2008
After hisoutlaw militiamen raised white flags and skedaddled from their latest round ofcombat with the Iraqi Army, radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr declaredvictory.
He always does.He understands media bravado. He wagers that survival bandaged by bombast andswathed 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 overcasualties in the firefights has ensued, as it always does. An Iraqi InteriorMinistry spokesman alleged that Sadr's militia had been hit hard in six days offighting, suffering 215 dead, 155 arrested and approximately 600 wounded. Thegovernment spokesman gave no casualty figures for Iraqi security forces.
No one, ofcourse, could offer an independent confirmation, but if the numbers are accuratethey provide an indirect confirmation of reports that Sadr's Mahdi Militia(Jaish al-Mahdi, hence the acronym JAM) had at least a couple thousand fightersscattered throughout southern Iraq. This is not shocking news, but a reason tolaunch a limited offensive when opportunity appeared.
Numbers,however, are a very limited gauge. The firefights, white flags, media debateand, for that matter, the Iraqi-led anti-militia offensive itself are thevisible manifestations of a slow, opaque and occasionally violent political andpsychological struggle that in the long term is likely democratic Iraq's mostdecisive: the control, reduction and eventual elimination of Shia gangs andterrorists strongly influenced if not directly supported by Iran.
Other Shiamilitia and gangs confront Iraq, but Sadr is the most vexing case. His father, aleading Shia cleric, was murdered -- many Iraqis believe at the order of SaddamHussein. That makes his father a political and religious symbol.
And Sadr knowsit. So do his financiers.
For four years,the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi government have intermittently sparred withSadr, sometimes in parliament, sometimes in the streets.
The Iraqigovernment's strategy has been to bring former insurgents into the politicalprocess. Since interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi articulated that goal inmid-2004, the central government's complex array of enemies has sought to thwartthat program.
Saddam's oldcohorts managed to convince themselves that if they spread enough money around,killed enough people and hammered the U.S. electorate with bloody headlines theUnited States would leave and the Iraqi government would eventually collapse --and they would return to power. Saddam's capture, trial and execution has allbut snuffed out the old-line Baathists. Recall Maliki stoutly defended hisdecision to carry out the court's sentence of capital punishment. He bet withSaddam dead the tyrant's cult of personality would wither. It has.
Al-Qaidapursued the same strategy of blood for headlines. Al-Qaida in Iraq tried toignite a sectarian war -- its now-dead emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, made thatgoal explicit in February 2004. Al-Qaida massacred en masse, to the point thatU.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D for Defeatist) declared the war in Iraq lost. Then, theSunni tribes in Anbar turned on al-Qaida. Sunni political integration is by nomeans complete, but al-Qaida has failed.
Now theShia-led Iraqi government focuses on its chief Shia nemesis. How the Iraqigovernment handles Sadr matters. In August 2004, Sadr's thugs grabbed the GrandMosque in Najaf. Sadr was counting on Americans to bomb the mosque. The UnitedStates opted to follow the political lead of Shia Grand Ayatollah Alial-Sistani. Sistani's aides told coalition officers: "Let us deal with Sadr. Weknow how to handle him and will do so. However, the coalition must not make hima martyr."
The Iraqi wayoften appears to be indecisive, until you learn to look at itscounter-insurgency methods in the frame of achieving political success, insteadof the frame of American presidential elections.
In southernIraq and east Baghdad, Sadr once again lost street face. Despite the predictablemedia umbrage, this translates into political deterioration.
Think of theIraqi anti-Sadr method as a form of suffocation, a political war waged with theblessing of Ayatollah Sistani that requires daily economic and political action,persistent police efforts and occasional military thrusts.