January 5, 2011

al-Sadr Spooks Washington With Grand Return

He vowed to return no sooner and no later than the last U.S. troop withdrew from his native land.

So when Muqtada al-Sadr popped up today in Najaf, both his supporters and the media were caught off guard. However, the only surprise in al-Sadr’s timing is that he emerged today, not yesterday or tomorrow. Though al-Sadr could have made a grand entrance on January 1st, 2012 (U.S. troops must withdrawn from Iraq by December 31st, 2011), the move wouldn’t have fit his grand strategy.

Coming back today does.

U.S. officials likely hoped that al-Sadr would stay true to his word - that he wouldn’t return until U.S. forces had completely withdrawn. But this was a bluff all along considering the mismatch in time-lines. It made little sense for al-Sadr to delay his return any longer than necessary, and his plans solidified once he received security guarantees in exchange for supporting Nouri al-Maliki’s premiership.

al-Sadr wasn’t about to wait until U.S. forces leave in December 2011, especially not when he sees the rest of Iraq’s elements jockeying for position. He needed to get back in the game now.

"We are all happy because he's back," said Nassir al-Rubaie, a Sadrist who doubles as the Minister for Works in Iraq's new government. "This is not a short visit. He has returned to where he came from and he will play an important role in the political process."

al-Sadr has reemerged not just to compete with the rest of Iraq’s political actors though, but because he has so much to do before 2012. Surrounded by his “golden team” of bodyguards, al-Sadr and his officials have made clear that they expect security positions within the government, as agreed to by al-Maliki. al-Sadr’s party had also demanded the post of deputy prime minister and secretary of the cabinet, but were denied (likely with Washington’s urging).

Ahmed Rushdie, a political analysts in Iraq, told Al Jazeera that “the Americans” believe they “have the upper hand" over the appointment of security positions. Such promotions have failed to materialize in full, Sadrists complain, and al-Sadr is likely to begin with a strong push to secure these gains.

The Sadrist faction already controls eight ministries in the new cabinet and has sought the transfer of Maysan province, a stomping ground on Iran’s border, to their authority.

al-Sadr will also move quickly to expand his religious base after three years of training in Iran. Whether he was officially exiled makes little difference as his objective remained unchanged - to stay alive and fast-track his path to Ayatollah. Due to meet with the Supreme leader of Iraq's Shia Muslims, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, some believe that al-Sadr is being groomed by Iran and the Shia community in Baghdad as a potential successor to the 80 year old Ayatollah.

As an overriding objective, Muqtatda has returned to run his sword through the U.S. occupation and prove Washington wrong. US Ambassador Jim Jeffrey downplayed the influence of al-Sadr, saying, "So far I think they received roughly seven percent of the popular vote and I think their role will be commensurate with that.”

Such literal interpretation of Iraq’s politics reveals either Washington’s deep-rooted fears of al-Sadr, or a persistent ignorance of fourth-generation warfare.

While al-Sadr’s party received roughly 9.5% of the popular vote, 39 parliamentary seats overall (12% of parliament), the critical position al-Sadr landed himself quickly multiplied what was already an impressive haul. As Avigdor Lieberman’s 15 seats out of 120 Knesset spots continue to play an overpowering role in Israeli politics, so too did al-Sadr’s “kingmaker”status elevate his power after both al-Maliki and secular challenger Ayad Allawi wooed his bloc to secure a parliamentary majority.

This extra power is what allowed al-Sadr to return so soon to begin with.

Furthermore, al-Sadr’s power is anything but conventional, and thus is unlikely to act conventionally. With his religious authority enabling but also superseding his political clout, al-Sadr possesses multi-dimensional power that cuts through Iraq’s society. The reality is that al-Sadr ended the Iraq war as its most successful insurgent. Whereas al-Qaeda never evolved past the terrorist stage of an insurgency, al-Sadr’s Mahdi army has fully evolved into Hezbollah’s mold of a social-military guerrilla army, complete with legitimate political representation.

We’ve seen numerous reports claiming the Mahdi army disbanded in 2008, an erroneous assertion. The Mahdi army simply went underground, though some fighters continue to operate openly in Sadr’s territory. Huge quantities of weapons have been stashed in case Washington and Baghdad renege on their Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). And the Mahdi army used the lull to expand its grassroots social programs, escalating its non-military operations in preparation for what would become a successful March election.

Expect al-Sadr to move swiftly in restoring and increasing the Mahdi army to its maximum limit.

The sum of this triple capacity - religious, political, military - has magnified al-Sadr’s power beyond its parts. While al-Qaeda must continue its fear campaign to maintain momentum, al-Sadr is perfectly positioned for a legitimate role in post-invasion Iraq - exactly what U.S. officials worked so hard to avoid. Not all of Iraq’s fate will be determined by al-Sadr’s own future, but 7% only exists in Washington’s dream.

Maybe Jeffrey criss-crossed the decline in America’s own influence.


  1. Excellent
    "With his religious authority enabling but also superseding his political clout, al-Sadr possesses multi-dimensional power that cuts through Iraq’s society."
    IMO This is your most powerful statement.

    If they do give him the fast track to become the new supreme Ayatolla and replace Ali al Sistani then all bets are off.
    I believe this is his ultimate goal.

    The West is becoming less and less relevant in the affairs of Iraq.

  2. Replacing al-Sistani is a major part of his strategy. I also think he wants to go bigger than Iraq, if he can. Washington will retain a certain influence through military/economic partnerships, but the long-term trend favors the native al-Sadr. He's always been someone to watch and doesn't disappoint.

    What's so odd is that Washington shouldn't have anything against him. Oppressed by Saddam like everyone else, the U.S. invaded and Muqtada fought. Now they want to keep him out of elected power. This is just a bad grudge that must be dropped.

  3. I think some of this al Sadr hatred might come from the Saudi's and the Sunni's in Iraq.
    They are seeing Iraq as becoming an extension of the Irani Shia Islamic Republic.
    And rightfully so IMO.