Just hours after Moqtada al-Sadr reappeared in public for the first time since the U.S. security crackdown in January to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops in a major speech in Kufa on May 25, a prominent Mahdi Army commander, Wissam al-Waili (known as Abu Qadir), was killed by the Iraqi special forces with the backing of British troops (IRNA, May 26). The assassination was followed by U.S. air strikes on the Habibiyeh region of Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, as well as the arrest of a Mahdi Army commander after armed militiamen attacked a British headquarters in Basra (IRNA, June 3; IRNA, June 2).
U.S.-led attacks on al-Sadr’s militia come at a critical juncture in the post-Baathist political era, as major Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions continue to negotiate over crucial constitutional themes including the disbanding of militias by mid-September. Amidst such political crisis, in which the Iraqi government seems to be at the brink of collapse due to its failure to improve the economy and security, al-Sadr has reemerged with what appears to be a cohesive political and military strategy to strengthen his status as a major political player.
Al-Sadr has much to gain from the current situation. First and foremost, the Iraqi government is arguably at its weakest, especially because the U.S. troop surge has made Iraqi forces more dependent on the United States and less reliable as an independent military entity in the face of a stubborn Sunni insurgency. Second, al-Sadr’s political rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), is undergoing treatment for lung cancer in Iran. Al-Hakim’s absence has allowed al-Sadr to fill a political vacuum that positions him as an unrivaled Shiite leader—except in relation to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Third, with a substantial Sunni Iraqi opposition to the government, which is growing as the Shiite-led Nuri al-Maliki government continues to weaken, al-Sadr has found a new constituency that shares his political objectives. This constituency intends to attain the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the establishment of an Islamic state led, or supervised, by clerics and religious institutions. This situation has created a new dynamic that has enabled the young al-Sadr to reenter Iraqi politics as both a reliable alternative to the country’s government and a force behind the building of national unity—he seeks the support of the highly disgruntled Sunni Iraqi factions, especially the tribal orders of Anbar province who are highly suspicious of al-Hakim’s model of federalism.
Al-Sadr’s most recent tactic is to reshape himself as a true Iraqi nationalist. He is now operating on both political and military levels, which reflects his long-term strategic vision for consolidating power, especially in non-Shiite regions.
Politically, al-Sadr has been striving to attract various ethnic and religious entities on the local level (away from Baghdad and closer to the central and southern provinces). This is perhaps an attempt to expand his popular support against his major Shiite competitor, the SIIC, which is based in Baghdad and largely perceived by Sunni Arabs as an Iranian puppet. After the attack of the Turkish army on the Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq early this month, for instance, al-Sadr quickly warned Ankara that he would not ignore such belligerent action against the Iraqi Kurds (IRNA, June 10). In his statement, al-Sadr also expressed his allegiance to the Kurds as his fellow Iraqi brothers. In another interesting case, in late May, al-Sadr met a number of Iraqi provincial leaders (both Sunni and Shiite) in Najaf to seek their support for the expansion of public services for Iraqi citizens (IRNA, May 31). The meeting was partially designed to foster closer ties with regional authorities, who encompass a part of the Iraqi political structure where al-Sadr lacks political influence as a result of his 2005 boycott of local elections.
Militarily, the Mahdi Army also appears to be undergoing a dramatic transformation. The timing of the recent joint U.S.-Iraqi attacks on the Mahdi Army, designed to chip away at al-Sadr’s militia, may not be a mere coincidence. In the past, al-Sadr has been reported to have eradicated his rogue Mahdi Army commanders by giving up their names to the U.S.-Iraqi forces in order to “clean-house” (Baztab, November 1, 2006). Since 2006, al-Sadr has been fervently trying to dispose of the rogue commanders of his Mahdi Army (Baztab, October 18, 2006). The policy, however, had its backlash after he received death threats from various splinter groups within his militia (Terrorism Monitor, May 24). In light of recent events, it now appears that he is increasingly relying on U.S.-Iraqi forces to eliminate the major competitors in his militia, such as Abu Qadir, while publicly denouncing the U.S.-led attacks on the Mahdi Army.
With the government on the verge of collapse and a possible U.S. troop reduction, especially after the 2008 elections, al-Sadr seeks the restructuring of his Mahdi Army into a new force loyal only to him. He does so with hopes to carry on the legacy of his father for the establishment of a democratic Mahdistic society that will pave the path for the return of the Twelfth Imam, who is believed to return at the end of time to bring justice back to the world.
There are a number of policy implications to this strategy. In a highly anticipated interview with Iraqi television station al-Iraqiyah on June 7, al-Sadr stated the following: “I advise all sides, particularly the Iraqi segments and the political sides, to have a positive outlook at this [Sadrist movement], and to view them as being faithful, sincere and nationalist persons who cannot be bought by money or anything else. Saving them, bringing them closer together and using them in the service of Iraq are better than excluding and marginalizing them” (al-Iraqiyah, June 7). Al-Sadr was addressing an important issue. Marginalizing the Sadrists, especially at this stage in the political process, could be a drastic mistake. Al-Sadr’s 2003 youth movement, which was originally built around the legacy of al-Sadr’s father, has presently become a major political-military force with aspirations for regional influence—much like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Although al-Sadr’s ambitions present Washington with a complicated situation in Iraq, perhaps the best strategy for the United States to follow is al-Sadr’s suggestions regarding the Iraqi government: to find ways for his movement to become fully integrated into the Iraqi political system and to become part of a consolidated, centralized government in Baghdad, as well as a strong military force that would provide services and security to its citizens.
Nevertheless, Washington should carefully consider the ultimate consequence of the consolidation of the Sadrist movement in the Iraqi government: an increase in demand for U.S. troops to leave Iraq. Al-Sadr represents not merely a military challenge to the U.S. presence in Iraq, but a major political one as well. Such a political challenge will most likely remain a face of Iraq for years to come.