Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sadr’s Predicament

Sadr’s call for weekly protests against the Status of Forces Agreement failed in both rallying more support and in blocking the deal from passing

Recently the U.S. and Iraq signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which sets the future relations between the two countries. The followers of Moqtada al-Sadr were some of the fiercest opponents of the pact. Sadr called for weekly demonstrations against it, while his parliamentarians tried to block it in the legislature. Its passage was a major setback for Sadr who has been struggling to re-define his movement.

After the government’s crackdown on the Mahdi Army in early 2008, Sadr began to reorganize. In June he said he was disbanding his militia, and creating a new group, the Mumahidun, Those Who Are Paving The Way. This new organization was to focus upon social programs and religious training. At the same time, Sadr has been in Qom, Iran undergoing religious training. Many think he is aiming to become an ayatollah, which would give him greater standing amongst Shiites, and would allow him to issue fatwas. It was also a way for him to escape being targeted by Iraqi and American forces for his militia. Some believe he is trying to join the mainstream, and shed his image as a militia leader.

Sadr’s opposition to the SOFA was part of this new image making. By standing against the agreement, he hoped to rekindle his nationalist stance, and regain followers. Beginning in May 2008, he called for weekly demonstrations against the SOFA. The Sadr bloc in parliament said they were against any agreement with the U.S., which they saw as an occupier. They were one of the few groups that completely rejected the deal. The problem was that they didn’t propose any alternatives they just called for an immediate withdrawal of American forces. That meant his parliamentarians could not make bargains, and got nothing from their stance when the SOFA was passed. The agreement was also a victory for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who used it to undermine Sadr. Maliki claimed that he was the one that got the U.S. to agree to pull out of Iraq, something Sadr has always said he stood for.

Up next for the Sadrists are the provincial elections in January 2009. Sadr said that he would not have his followers run under his name. Instead they will join independents and smaller political parties. Again, this was a way to avoid persecution by the government who threatened to ban any party with a militia. Since the new election law favors the larger, well-organized parties, the Sadrists will probably not do well in the upcoming vote following this strategy.

These all point to the huge gamble that Sadr is taking. He is trying to transform his group into a more institutionalized social and political one. The Mahdi has always been an ad hoc street movement. Local commanders raised their own money, obtained weapons, and carried out their own operations. Protection rackets and other illegal activities were common ways for them to raise funds. Sadr only has a nominal hold over a lot of them, and is more of a symbolic leader. Many of his followers reject the political system and the major parties, especially the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is a long time rival, and the Dawa Party because of Maliki’s moves against them. Some were upset with his decision to run in the 2005 parliamentary elections and join Maliki’s government. As a result, the Mahdi Army has increasingly fractured over the last several years. More and more have found outside support from Iran in the myriad local militias known as Special Groups.

As a sign of these growing divisions, there have been several deaths of moderate Sadrists. As reported before, Riadh al-Nouri was killed in April 2008, followed by parliamentarian Saleh al-Auqaeili in October. Factions of the Mahdi Army are suspected of carrying out the assassinations.

Sadr might also be on the outs with Iran. After the U.S. invasion Tehran began moving towards Sadr because of his anti-American stance. The Iranians came to see him as a loose canon however as he had his own agenda, and would escalate situations and start violence with no way to end them. Iran started arming the groups that broke away from his movement because they were easier to control by regulating the amount of weapons shipped to them. There were also reports that Sadr might have been under a form of house arrest in 2008. Iran also came to support the SOFA after Maliki was able to get the U.S. to agree to a 2011 withdrawal date, directly contradicting Sadr’s stance on the deal.

Sadr appears in a very weakened position now. In 2007 he withdrew his ministers from Maliki’s cabinet, giving him no say in the federal government. His bloc in parliament has achieved very few things, as the opposition overall is very fragmented. Sadrists control Maysan province, which is one of the poorest in the country. He lacks a national party to run in the upcoming elections, and might have lost standing with Iran. More importantly, Sadr’s power has always come from his standing on the street, and his ability to threaten violence. He is now trying to move away from armed conflict, while the Special Groups have grown, tainting his name in the process. Many of his remaining followers also seem uncertain of what direction the movement is going in. Adding to that is the fact that Sadr himself has not been seen in public for over a year, and is currently living outside the country in Qom, Iran, which means he does not have a role in the day to day operation of his movement. His recent moves to reconfigure his group are as much an attempt to escape more arrests by the government, as to gain legitimacy. The problem as always has been that the more Sadr moves towards the mainstream, the less support he has amongst his traditional followers.

For more on the Sadrists see:

Combating Terrorism Center’s Report On Iran’s Role In Iraq

Combating Terrorism Center Report On Iranian Training of Shiite Militants

SOFA Passes

Government Moves Against Squatters In Hurriyah, Baghdad

Iraq Center for Research & Strategic Studies’ Survey Of Iraqis

Shiite Rivalries Increasing As Provincial Elections Near

How The Failure To Deal With Iraq’s Militias Caused The Breakdown Of The Country

Another Sadrist Assassinated

Dispute Over Tribal Support Councils

Sadrist Cleric Assassinated In Basra

Maliki Hits The Campaign Trail

Sadr Struggles To Remain Relevant

Sadr’s Leadership Or Lack Thereof

Iraq Gains Control of Diwaniyah Province

Hezbollah’s Role In Iraq

Desperation Move By The Sadrists? Update II

Desperation Move By The Sadrists? Update I

Vali Nasr: Iranian Policy In Iraq At A Crossroad

Operation Promise Of Peace In Maysan Province


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Bennett, Brian, “Underestimating al-Sadr – Again,” Time, 2/12/08

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Felter, Joseph and Fishman, Brian, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq, Politics and ‘Other Means,’” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 10/13/08

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Robertson, Campbell and Al-Salhy, Suadad, “Cleric Calls for Resistance to U.S. Presence in Iraq,” New York Times, 11/15/08

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