Negotiations over Muqtada al-Sadr
The Iranian delegation to Najaf is continuing its attempts to calm the situation, despite the assassination in Baghdad of the Iranian cultural attache, Khalil Na`imi. The Iranian delegation left for Najaf on Thursday to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. It has decided not to meet with Muqtada al-Sadr after all, in the wake of the killing of Na`imi. The delegation said its role was that of a “fact-finder.” Some result of the negotiations is expected within a day or two. The Iranian delegation again denied that they would permit Muqtada al-Sadr to go into exile in Iran.
Gen. Rick Sanchez would not rule out the use of force against the supporters of Muqtada. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held talks at Baghdad airport with Gen. John Abizaid. Myers came away with the impression that Muqtada al-Sadr did not have much support in the Shiite community, and concluded: “It may well be that if he is captured, violence could increase for a bit,” Myers said. “But I think it would be very temporary. But in the end you can’t have an Iraq of the type that the Iraqi people say they want, when somebody like Sadr is there, working his own priorities.”
Something like Muqtada’s support in the Shiite community is a complex subject. He has many devoted supporters, especially in Kufa and East Baghdad, but also in other cities. Beyond supporters, he has sympathizers. The number of each can increase or decrease over time. But you can’t assume that making a martyr of him will cause them to decrease; Saddam did that to Muqtada’s father, and Sadiq al-Sadr’s picture is everywhere in the Iraqi South. I’m not sure how many you need, moreover, for them to be a problem. If 100,000 Shiites in Iraq suddenly decided that they not only disliked the US and its policies (which they have all along), but were so angry about the capture or killing of their leader that they were willing to become active guerrillas, mounting attacks, wouldn’t that be a bad development right about now? Well, Muqtada certainly has the support of at least that number of young men, and my informed guess is that they would turn into guerrillas if the US captured or killed their leader. Even if there were only 10,000 of them or only 10,000 of them conducted a campaign of violence, wouldn’t that further destabilize Iraq?
And, since they are Sadrists the way some Americans are members of the white supremicist Christian Identity movement, why would you expect their anger over a thing like that to subside any time soon? (Think Timothy McVeigh, and how Oklahoma City was in his mind in part payback for Waco and Ruby Ridge–see Gary Kamiya’s excellent insights in this regard at Salon.com). I am often highly impressed with the intelligence and learning of the military officers I meet at security conferences. But I confess myself deeply puzzled as to how, after being in Iraq for over a year, these bright and well-informed persons could have gotten the Sadrist movement so wrong.
1) It is a longstanding social movement, not just a fly by night militia
2) It is not tiny in numbers of adherents, though not all adherents are willing to put themselves out for it at the moment; that could change.
3) It has lots of potential leaders besides Muqtada
4) Its cadres can easily become guerrillas, as the Army of the Mahdi shows.
So you can’t wipe it out, and you can’t hope that it will just go away, and it is highly unwise to start a decades-long (yes) feud with it. If you were worried about the militia, just make rules and enforce them– that the militia can’t march in public, can’t wear uniforms, can’t bear arms. Address the problem at its root in Kut and Nasiriyah. Going after the leadership in a way that seems trumped up will just provoke a steady drumbeat of violence into the future. Think Indira Gandhi and the Sikhs. Or the Baath Party and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, for that matter.