September 14, 2011

Will Muqtada al-Sadr Make a Deal?

As if paying tribute to the conspiracies, a number of plots unfolded amid the solemn celebration that was 9/11’s 10th anniversary. Fresh off the release of a Global Counterterror Forum, U.S. officials such as President Barack Obama and Yemeni Ambassador Gerald Feierstein praised America’s allies in the war against al-Qaeda, a group that includes the insidious Ali Abdullah Saleh. Off in Afghanistan, the newly-appointed Ambassador Ryan Crocker defended America’s ongoing military campaign with mind-bending logic.

"Some back home have asked why we are still here,” Crocker remarked in his 9/11 speech. “It's been a long fight and people are tired. The reason is simple: Al Qaeda is not here in Afghanistan, and that is because we are. We're here so that there is never again another 9/11 coming from Afghan soil.”

Joined by George Bush for the first in 18 months - as if this “news” was actually newsworthy - President Barack Obama participated in the festivities with his own slight of hand. The two men bowed their heads at the new 9/11 memorial, listened to names read off of the victims’ roll-call and proceeded to whitewash one of 9/11’s deadliest aftershocks: the Iraq war. Obama would defend Bush’s global reaction with a phrase repeated at each stop of his 9/11 tour: "After 9/11, to his great credit President Bush made clear what we reaffirm today: the United States will never wage war against Islam or any other religion."

Building on his Secretary of State’s script, both Obama and Clinton tacitly referred to Iraq’s war, its destruction, casualties and planning as a “mistake.”

"Ten years later, I'd say America came through this thing in a way that was consistent with our character," Obama told NBC News. "We've made mistakes. Some things haven't happened as quickly as they needed to. But overall, we took the fight to al-Qaida, we preserved our values, we preserved our character."

More than one of Iraq’s “mistakes” remains unchanged: a lack of humility.

Now the administration is facing another potential mistake: how many troops to leave in Iraq after 2011 ends, and how to classify their mission. In addition to improving the country’s security, Washington hopes to maintain a military and psychological barrier between Tehran and Baghdad; a training program would be supplemented by an active combat force and a heavy JSOC-CIA presence. This double-sided sword can cut both ways. Leave too few troops and many Iraqis, mainly the Kurds and various Sunni factions, fear the country will drift back into an ambiguous state of civil war. Leaving too many will risk sending a negative political shock throughout Iraq, in addition to offering up plentiful targets for Sunni and Shia insurgents.

Although Baghdad hasn’t made the process easy, a fierce debate inside Washington indicates that the administration also remained undecided on the appropriate level of risk and reward. Muqtada al-Sadr, possibly America’s number one enemy in Iraq, isn’t helping either.

Having staked most of his political chips on “ending the occupation,” al-Sadr seems like the last person in Iraq that will accept a residual U.S. force. Gradually stepping back into the political sphere after laying low in Iran, one of Iraq’s leading Shia clerics has periodically organized marches and demonstrations against the U.S. occupation throughout 2011. These protests are designed to remind both Washington and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of his power, and have played a role in Baghdad’s delayed decision. With Washington’s soft August 1st deadline inching towards all parties, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was quoted on July 11th as saying, “Do they want us to stay, don’t they want us to stay? Dammit, make a decision.”

After Panetta acknowledged that U.S. forces would conduct unilateral operations in the event that Iraqi security forces cannot (or will not) respond to a threat, al-Sadr accused the Secretary of “mocking Iraq’s sovereignty.”

As August 1st passed without a decision, the cleric would issue at least four messages demanding the total withdrawal of U.S. forces on December 31st. Asked whether or not he would negotiate over a security training mission, al-Sadr replied in few words: "No, there will be war." Now, as the December 31st deadline creeps closer to the present, the cleric has thrown another wrench into the administration’s post-2011 assessment. In a statement posted over the weekend, al-Sadr ordered his followers to halt their attacks on U.S. troops.

"Out of my desire to complete Iraq's independence and to finish the withdrawal of the occupation forces from our holy lands, I am obliged to halt military operations of the honest Iraqi resistance until the withdrawal of the occupation forces is complete.”

"If not,” he added, “the military operation will start again and with new approaches, and it will be very severe."

Naturally the Pentagon is taking a wait and see approach to al-Sadr’s political turnabout; the Mahdi Army and its affiliates are accused of causing the bulk of U.S. casualties after Obama declared an end to “combat operations.” Spokesman Colonel Barry Johnson responded soon afterward, "We shall soon see whether the Promised Day Brigade and others affiliated with al-Sadr's organization continue to conduct attacks against U.S. forces and the Iraqi government, or if these are just words without the deeds to back them up.”

Besides al-Sadr’s personal motivation to confront U.S. troops, the Mahdi Army is far from a monolithic organization under his sole control. In July the cleric said that he would not revive his militia because it had been infested with “criminals,” and many Mahdi foot soldiers express a desire to avoid reentering the battlefield. al-Sadr risks further alienation between Iraq’s “Special Groups,” three networks funded by Iranian intelligence, for halting his military campaign. One of these groups, the Promised Day Brigades (PDB), serves as the Mahdi Army’s current guerrilla unit, formed by al-Sadr to keep the pressure on U.S. troops.

The Asaib Ahl al-Haq - League of the Righteous - works in a loose connection, having splintered from the Mahdi Army after al-Sadr negotiated tentative ceasefires with Washington and al-Maliki. Qais al-Khazali Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the group’s leader and a former spokesman for al-Sadr, has recruited the most gung-ho men from the Mahdi’s ranks, and the groups compete for shared territory.

As the situation stands, al-Sadr has more to gain in holding to his promise; sometimes not fighting leads to victory and, after proving his point, al-Sadr appears to have decided that enough is enough. So the overriding question becomes whether al-Sadr is willing to accept any troops after 2011, even the lowest force level on the table. Evidence to support the affirmative is rare, and al-Sadr would risk his personal credibility by allowing U.S. troops to stay after Iraq’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) expires. Nevertheless, several factors hint at the possibility of a compromise.

Many Iraqis and observers, for instance, never envisioned al-Sadr and al-Maliki politically aligning after battling for Iraq’s streets. Now al-Maliki fears caving to U.S. pressure in part because of al-Sadr’s 39 parliamentary seats, a partnership forged on the condition of “security guarantees” for the cleric. al-Maliki is now accused of favoring al-Sadr’s elements over other militias, accepting his military parades and provocative statements. Although both al-Sadr and al-Maliki wish to retain their independence, Tehran’s influence is also suspected of forcing them into a semi-working relationship.

For instance, the Middle East Media Research Institute cites a local report outlining their most recent political deal. al-Sadr had recently called for mass protests against the government’s response to national protests, but al-Maliki reportedly accepted economic conditions to avert the demonstration. Apparently al-Sadr also changed the topic of his protest and will now demonstrate in favor of the government’s generosity.

While al-Maliki presumably desires a continual U.S. presence to buffer himself against Riyadh and Tehran, he must be open to deciding the issue with al-Sadr. Otherwise his position may become vulnerable to Ayad Allawi, who justifiably feels double-crossed after being sidelined in al-Maliki’s new government. The question ultimately boils down to whether al-Sadr (and Tehran) will take more money for less years. He must realize that al-Maliki needs to throw Washington a few bones, so will he concede for another payoff? Is he simply playing hardball? Will the cleric see the logic in allowing 3,000 troops to remain on an annual basis, if the alternative is 10,000?

As vehemently opposed to the U.S. occupation as al-Sadr is, the shrewd cleric is too calculating not to see Iraq’s bigger picture.


  1. I invite you to give my latest entry your perusal. Feel free to comment as you see fit.

    By the way, I am now reading the USA/USMC COIN Field Manual that was published by the UChicago Press.

  2. I think he is playing the hand that has been given him.
    He is buying time, and showing his strength by being idle.
    A lot can happen between now and the dead line.
    He is positioning himself for the long run.
    He has come a long way, in a short time span.
    Much will depend on Iran, and what mistakes Maliki makes.
    If Turkey enters Iraq against the Kurds, all bets are off.

  3. Personally I found Petraeus's COIN manual to be full of obvious strategy that should have been applied before it was written. Although I would advise checking it off of your list, I consider it one of the least informative documents that I've read on COIN. Historical literature, in my opinion, is generally more knowledgeable of "small wars."

    I doubt that Turkey will escalate its operations in northern Iraq past their current point, however the Kurds certainly don't like what they're seeing in Baghdad. I'm beginning to wonder if these decisions can be accommodated in three months.

  4. The U.S. is looking for any justification to prolong their stay.
    The Kurds might just give them that.