On January 5th, radical Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr returned to Iraq from more than three years of self-imposed exile in Iran. He brought with him the specter of renewed violence in that war-torn country.
For those readers who have done their best to forget America’s Iraq misadventure, here’s a bit of background. Al-Sadr is the son of a revered Shia imam who was murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999. He became prominent by leading Shia opposition to the American occupation after 2003. In 2004 his militia, the Mahdi Army, twice battled U.S. troops. Though not victorious, the Sadrists lived to fight another day. Al-Sadr also avoided arrest by U.S. forces on a warrant issued against him for the murder of another cleric. America thus failed to nip in the bud the young cleric’s militant movement.
During the civil war of 2006-07, the Sadrists carried out brutal sectarian cleansings in Baghdad and elsewhere. Even the onset of the American surge of ground troops in early 2007 failed to slow the pace of the carnage. At the same time, the Mahdi Army began to slip out of al-Sadr’s control; by the summer of 2007 the frenzy of violence caused even many Shia to turn against the Sadrists. Then the weight of American power began to have an effect; many Sadrist cadres were killed or captured by US troops. At the end of August al-Sadr declared a unilateral ceasefire and took himself off to the Iranian holy city of Qom, where he sought safety and the opportunity to polish the rather rough edges he had displayed as a political and religious leader.
In his absence the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, given a breathing space by the apparent success of the Surge, was able to consolidate its hold on power. In early 2008 Iraqi government forces, backed by US and British logistical, intelligence, and air support, defeated the Sadrists first in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then (though less decisively) in Baghdad itself. The Sadrist movement had reached its low point. Even so, however, it had once again survived. “We may have wasted an opportunity . . . to kill those that needed to be killed,” an anonymous US official stated at the time. Today that official looks more and more like a prophet.
After the Basra and Baghdad defeats the Sadrists eschewed the gun in favor of the ballot. They scored surprising successes in local elections in 2009. Then, in national elections this past March, they emerged as the second largest Shia bloc, barely trailing al-Maliki’s party. As a result, al-Sadr became a kingmaker; Maliki’s reappointment as prime minister in late 2010 was possible only because the Sadrists supported him. In return they received ministerial posts and at least one provincial governorship. They are in the enviable position of having power without true responsibility: if the government succeeds, they will share in the credit; if it fails, they will blame al-Maliki and bring the government down. The Sadrists have made it clear that al-Maliki has only so much time to restore services, revive the economy, and end what’s left of the American occupation.
An anonymous US official stated that “We may have wasted an opportunity . . . to kill those that needed to be killed.”
The question of a continued American presence is a vexing one for all concerned — except the Sadrists. There are less than 50,000 US troops left in the country. Under an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration, all US forces are supposed to leave by the end of 2011. The Obama administration has stated that it would consider an extension of the US military presence only if Iraq requests it. Al-Maliki would very much like to see some US troops remain, as would the Kurds and most of the Sunnis. But al-Maliki risks looking like an American puppet if he asks for an extended troop presence. The Sadrists, on the other hand, are unequivocally opposed to any US troops remaining after the Dec. 31, 2011 deadline. Their attitude is not merely designed to appeal to Iraqi nationalist feeling. At some point in the future the Sadrists could decide to seize power. They probably would have a good chance of succeeding, provided US troops are not available to stop them.
The US State Department is supposed to take over the American role in Iraq’s security after 2011. Its active arm will be thousands of contractors (that is, mercenaries) whom it has been hiring and trying to put in place before the last uniformed Americans depart. While the Wikileaks revelations have shown that US diplomats are an intelligent and dedicated group of professionals, the idea of putting diplomats in charge of security in a place like Iraq seems a dicey proposition indeed. The employment of contractors will undoubtedly lead to incidents in which Iraqi civilians are killed. The reaction of the Iraqi populace, and specifically the remaining militias, is all too easy to predict. Recall the burned bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in 2003.
The Sunni insurgency, despite heavy blows inflicted by US and Iraqi forces, remains able to carry out widespread and damaging attacks. It may in fact be on the brink of a resurgence, for many Sunnis who joined the pro-US, pro-government Awakening movement have grown disaffected with a Shia-dominated government that has cut back on cash payments and jobs for Sunnis.
We have then the makings of a new explosion in Iraq, with no prospect of an American “Surge II” should the worst occur. Into this maelstrom steps Moktada, the prophet and redeemer of the Shia masses and of the armed fanatics who thirst to avenge past beatings received at the hands of the Americans and al-Maliki. One is reminded of the situation in St. Petersburg in 1917, with al-Maliki in the role of Kerensky and al-Sadr as the “plague bacillus,” Lenin. Admittedly the two men are, for the present, partners, which Kerensky and Lenin never were. But one cannot help but feel that, given the past, their paths must diverge. It may be one, or two, or four years before the situation plays out. But I can’t help but think that one or the other of these men is going to wind up dead.