The decision officially made by Iraqi Prime Minister al Maliki, though perhaps with more than a little urging from behind the scenes, to corner Moqtada al Sadr seems to have been designed at a minimum to persuade Moqtada to give up his estimated 60,000-man militia and become just a weak factional leader in a political system where power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Instead--Surprise! Surprise!—it risks pushing him in the opposition direction, toward setting up his own competing political system.
Al Sadr has, over the past year, been taught several lessons:
- Unilaterally declaring a ceasefire does not protect you from being attacked;
- Participating in the political process does not protect you from being attacked;
- Allowing Tehran to broker a ceasefire in Basra does not protect you from being attacked in Baghdad;
- If you have a political perspective (unified state, rapid U.S. troop withdrawal) that puts you at odds with other power centers, you are at risk.
Given these lessons, one would indeed think it would be difficult to make the decision to give up a 60,000-man army and put one’s faith in the generosity of one’s political opponents. This is the context behind the comment of Mohan Abedin, director of research at St. Andrew’s Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, who said that "Muqtada has shown a great deal of patience not calling for an all-out war yet with so much pressure on him.” Indeed, one of al Sadr’s political supporters was anonymously quoted as saying that his “emphasis is now on weapons and fighting, not politics.”
While this is a serious indication of the direction in which al Sadr may be moving, it is nevertheless clear that he continues to play politics, as indicated by his nuanced refocusing of last week’s threat to fight if Maliki and the U.S. do not stop attacking his forces. Focusing on “open warfare against the Americans,” he is now stressing the importance of Iraqis avoiding killing each other.
Still calling on his own forces to avoid fighting, he is maintaining his threat of open warfare, but focusing it on occupation forces, saying "When we threatened 'open war' we meant a war against the occupier, not a war against our Iraqi brothers.” Nevertheless, war against Iraqi brothers continues, as this good background piece describes.
Meanwhile, al Sadr is calling on other Arab states to give political support to Iraqi efforts toward independence. The temporizing of Arab leaders at this week’s Kuwait “neighbor’s summit” suggests they may be listening to him.
And now, only a month after the Battle of Basra, the former prime minister Jaafari is rumored to be moving toward alliance with al Sadr, which would crack the wall of isolation that has been thrown around al Sadr in recent weeks.
Given the relatively restrained resistance of Moqtada's JAM in Basra, it seems fair to wonder if all the rhetoric about open war is anything more than bravado. It may be, as is being argued by some, that Basra has been not only an utter defeat for Moqtada but one popular with the people of Basra.
But the hypothesis that Moqtada chose to limit his resistance does fit with Moqtada’s historical behavior of avoiding open showdowns when offered an alternative. It also fits with his efforts to portray himself as a patriot and maneuver Maliki out of a complete break. Finally, it seems the better part of valor, for it could be argued that time is on Moqtada’s side. One could hypothesize that the longer he resists, the more he trumpets his independence from Iran (a claim al Hakim cannot easily make), the louder he calls on Iraqis to unite against the invader, and the more the Baghdad poor are subjected to collective punishment, the better Moqtada’s political position. Given the likelihood of American troop withdrawal, time may well be on his side militarily as well.
The opposite argument would be that time is on Maliki’s side because the longer he carries on the offensive, the more desperate Moqtada’s poor supporters will become and the longer Moqtada keeps retreating, the more he will look like a paper tiger.
For all the talk of who has military power, the issue may in the end be decided by two political issues:
- the skill with which Maliki rewards all his new coalition partners, the Kurds salivating over Kirkuk and the Sunnis demanding control of ministries and access to the military;
- the degree to which Moqtada’s religious and ethnic excesses have alienated him from the Iraqi people.
Maliki and his supporters want to create that “single center of power” that would so greatly simplify the Iraqi political system. He now appears to have made progress toward that goal in both Basra and Baghdad. Time will tell if he is really succeeding or if the “process of energizing” the political system will instead provoke the emergence of new and unanticipated dynamics.