Saturday, May 7, 2011

Iraq: Al Sadr Walks Fine Line

The Economist (07/05/2011) writes: He was widely regarded as someone who performed astutely in the violent game of Iraqi politics. But he has still not revealed his latest goals and allegiances

Every year, on the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the streets of Iraq fill with people baying for American troops to go. This year, the most virulent demands came from the Shiite cleric, Moqtada Al Sadr, who said he would revive his Mahdi Army militias if American troops stayed on after the agreed deadline for their withdrawal at the end of this year.
His militias killed thousands of Iraqis and western soldiers in 2006 and 2007, the bloodiest years of the American occupation, so the prospect of their resurgence frightens Iraqis (especially Sunnis) and westerners alike. Most of the militiamen are still armed and zealous but ill-trained; today's spruced-up Iraqi security forces could probably crush them. Still, whatever their military deficiencies, the Sadrists have grown into Iraq's most visible and disciplined social, political and religious movement. They have regained much of their power.

Part of a revered dynasty of Shiite religious leaders who fought against Saddam Hussain, Al Sadr has a cachet among Iraq's millions of poor Shiites, especially in the slums of eastern Baghdad. Since he decided in 2009 to focus on politics as violence ebbed, his Ahrar party has been well groomed in the political arts. After Nouri Al Maliki, the prime minister, sent in regular Iraqi forces to crush the Mahdi Army in the southern city of Basra in 2008, Al Sadr repaired to the safety of Iran. But he retained his influence from afar. Indeed, Al Maliki would not have kept his post as prime minister after last year's inconclusive election without Al Sadr's endorsement. When Al Sadr was displeased by Al Maliki, he teamed up with Iraq's leading secular politician, Eyad Allawi, whom many Sunnis support, to criticise the government.
In any case, it is social and religious issues that most preoccupy Al Sadr. A new movement in his thrall, called the Munasirun (supporters), has recently paraded itself in Baghdad and Basra. It claims already to have thousands of members, including some who are not Shiites and others — it says — who are not even Muslim. It plans to open offices across the country, focusing on religious education and charity. Al Sadr has told all his politicians to spend a day sweeping the streets to stay in touch with the poor. Sadrist charity is extensive and well-publicised. The group is fond of arranging opinion polls. Some results are unsurprising; for instance, Iraqis want better public services. But as a public-relations exercise the polls make the movement look democratic and efficient.

Cosiness with Iran
Al Sadr has also sought to distance himself from the Mahdi Army's reputation for violence. Former militiamen showing promise as future leaders undergo a programme of religious study. Last month Al Sadr declared: "I rejected [the militias'] brutal and sectarian acts and they are not linked to the [violent] resistance in any way." That seems to contradict his threats to reinstate them. Al Sadr is walking a fine line between keeping up his fiercely anti-western stance and becoming an influential political and religious leader who does not rely on his old militias. But he still boasts of his small, highly trained ‘Promised Day' brigades, who are said to be ready to hit the Americans at any moment.

 For their part, the Americans are still nervous about Al Sadr's increasing cosiness with Iran. His Mahdi Army used to flaunt nationalist credentials in an effort not to be viewed as being in Iran's pocket. But during Al Sadr's time in Iran, where he has been studying in Qom, he renewed his friendship with the clerics. The deal he struck last year to keep Al Maliki in power may have been brokered by them. And Al Sadr, like the Iranian authorities, has vociferously backed Bahrain's Shiite opposition. On the other hand, Sadrists in Baghdad said that they backed the Green Movement in Iran, which rebelled against the regime there in 2009.
He was also widely regarded as someone who performed astutely in the violent game of Iraqi politics. But he has still not revealed his latest goals and allegiances. After two years in exile, Al Sadr has made only two high-profile appearances in Iraq to address his followers. A spokesman said he was testing to see whether Al Maliki or the Americans would arrest him. But Al Sadr has recently spent more time in Iraq, mainly in Najaf. As the Americans draw down their numbers, his supporters may see a lot more of him.

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