Sadr Again

Since the beginning of the ‘surge’ the Iraq government has changed it policy toward the Shiite militias and the US has changed its rules of engagement so that it could go after the Sadr’s Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias and death squads. Having Sadr in the government made it unlikely, perhaps impossible, that any kind of stable accommodation between the government and the Sunnis could be reached. It is obvious that there are substantial numbers of both Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites that want to dominate Iraq as Saddam did. Sadr, of course, is the leading Shiite candidate to become the leader of a totalitarian Shiite government like that in Iran.

Sadr’s response to the new policy was to leave Iraq and order the Mahdi Army to hide their weapons and not fight. That approach didn’t work for him – apparently because the US and Iraq Army took control of Shiite neighborhoods arrested known militia leaders and Iranian agents and seized weapons caches. So now Sadr has pulled his ministers out of the government. The down side is that I suspect he will now step up violence as he has in the past. The up side is that the Maliki government can move forward with a coalition that is not beholden to a group that is dead set against a democratic government working in Iraq. Overall I think it is a positive development because Sadr’s participation in the government essentially blocked any progress toward the Shiite dominated government being acceptable to Iraqis in general. Still, there is little doubt that Sadr will cause trouble from outside the government. Iraqi Mohammad Fadhil of Iraq the Model , after noting how erratic and unpredictable Sadr is, speculates how Sadr might proceed here:

In my opinion, Sadr and his political wing will now pretend to distance themselves from the armed wing, which is what they’ve been doing for some time now, while actually keeping -if not increasing- the support for armed operations against military and civilian targets. at the same time, they will try to drive more people into opposing the government and the presence of coalition troops with spectacular protests here and there. And they will find nothing wrong if those “peaceful protesters” occasionally decide to use force and shoot at Iraqi and US soldiers or eliminate those who collaborate with the government and the coalition, because “that’s not us, not the Mehdi army. It’s the people’s reaction to an incompetent government and an illegal occupation”.

Now that they have left the government, they’re going to take advantage of simple-minded people who will no longer blame them for lack of basic services, because the Sadrists are not part of this government anymore. They will redirect all the blame onto Maliki and the coalition, when in fact, it was the Sadr bloc ministers who were controlling three of the most important ministries in charge of basic services: Health, Education and Transportation, in addition to three others.

That’s a point dwarfed by the militia’s direct role in Iraqi’s suffering.

Withdrawing from the governing coalition means that Sadr will still have 32 seats in the Iraqi parliament but remain part of the government – an unusual action in a parliamentary democracy. Normally when a group pulls out of the governing ministry they pull out of the underlying coalition and the government either finds new coalition partners or calls for fresh elections. Here is a BBC description of the unusual arrangement:

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Baghdad said the decision to quit did not come as surprise, and was not being seen as an attempt to bring down the government.

The gesture of calling for independent technocrats was welcomed in a statement from Mr Maliki, who also said he appreciated the Sadr movement’s support for the political process.

While it has withdrawn from the cabinet, the Sadr group has not left the governing coalition.

In a statement reported by MSNBC, Sadrist block spokesman, Nassar al-Rubaie, said he was giving “the six Cabinet seats to the government, with the hope that they will be given to independents who represent the will of the people.”

So Sadr isn’t withdrawing from the political process. He is trying, as he has in the past, to put increased pressure on the government, but at the same time Sadr’s withdrawal of his ministers frees Maliki to give those cabinet posts to members of other parties he hopes will strengthen his coalition. In my opinion Maliki has a major opportunity to make his government less dependent on the Sadrists. Mohammad Fadhil seems to be correct so far – it looks like the Sadrists have staged a big demonstration in Basra calling for the resignation of the provincial governor over infrastructure issues. From the same BBC report linked above:

Separately on Monday, about 3,000 people marched through the centre of Basra demanding the resignation of the provincial governor.

The protesters accuse Muhammad al-Waili of corruption and say he has failed to improve the supplies of essential services including power and water.

Mr Maliki had asked for the demonstration to be called off, saying complaints about the governor should be dealt with through the democratic process not through street protests.

Mr Waili accuses organisers of march of being a front for political foes, including radical Mr Sadr’s militia.

So for now Maliki is being conciliatory toward the Sadrists, but it is still clearly in his interests to protect his government by using those six cabinet posts to buy new support for his government. Also he is under pressure from the prospect of a US Democratic president in 2008 and a possible withdrawal of troops that would leave his government more vulnerable to both the Sadrists and the Sunni totalitarians. Overall, I think that the prospects for a more moderate Shiite dominated government are improved with the departure of Sadr’s ministers and that the influence of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani will continue to moderate Shia radicalism. Nonetheless, Sadr will do his best to become the dominant figure in Iraq. Mohammad Fadhil puts it this way:

Sadr is of the kind of tyrant who would try all methods he can to either control the entire nation of Iraq or, if he fails, destroy it altogether.

His inability to control the country from within the political process makes me think that he’ll try for the latter.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the words which Sadr used to close his message to Maliki this week, were technically an open threat.

In the Islamic culture, the expression “Assalam ala man Ittaba’ al-Huda” (or “peace be upon those who follow the right path”) includes more threats than wishes for peace: its implied meaning is “Follow the right path [our path] or face the consequences.”

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