Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What is Muqtada al-Sadr's game?

A recent item in Juan Cole's "Informed Comment" website reports the latest pronouncements from Muqtada al-Sadr ...
Young nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said in his Friday prayers sermon in Kufa that the Askariyah Shrine in Samarra must be rebuilt and that the US must set a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops and leave Iraq. He also rejected any amnesty for radical Sunnis who have killed Shiites, and for "the Baathists of Saddam's regime." He demanded the release of still-imprisoned Mahdi Army fighters. He also called for continued de-baathification and the execution of Saddam. Muqtada's call for continued debaathification is being interpreted as a rejection of Maliki's reconciliation plan. Note that Muqtada puts the US on a par with radical [Sunni]Islamists and with Baathists as undeserving of forgiveness or reconciliation.
Al-Hayat reports a demonstration against the reconciliation plan in Nasiriyah, a southern Shiite city. They are especially angry at the prospect of amnesty for Baathists.
"Note that Muqtada puts the US on a par with radical [Sunni] Islamists and with Baathists as undeserving of forgiveness or reconciliation." I've never been quite sure what game Muqtada al-Sadr thinks he's playing by taking positions like these, but whatever it is, it looks risky and potentially self-destructive. Since a lot of Iraqi Shiites are so fed up with the Americans, he clearly figures that he gains by playing the anti-American card, and from time to time this has led him to make opportunistic alliances with anti-US forces among the Sunni Arabs. (I am sometimes reminded of the famous Nazi-Communist collaboration in the Berlin streetcar strike before Hitler's take-over.) But in the end--as this example once again makes clear--his agenda and that of the Sunni Arab "insurgents" are opposed in quite fundamental ways.

I find that many Americans assume that if a full-scale sectarian civil war breaks out in Arab Iraq, the Shiites are bound to win and slaughter the Sunnis, since the Shiites are a majority and the Sunni Arabs amount to only 15-20% of the population. I suspect this assumption has something to do with a characteristically American illusion that majorities always beat--and often oppress--minorities, whereas often it's the other way around. As a number of people have pointed out, it seems pretty clear that the Ba'athists & jihadis at the core of the Sunni Arab "insurgency" are convinced that if they can detonate full-scale civil war and panic the Americans into running away, they can decapitate the Shiites politically, crush them, and take over the country. (See, for example, here and here and here.) This may or may not turn out to be a disastrous miscalculation on their part--I hope we don't find out--but from their perspective it's not self-evidently crazy.

Muqtada al-Sadr, like the Sunni Arab "insurgents" and their political allies, has been calling for US troops to clear out. But what does he expect to happen next? Does he figure that it's safe to make these noises because there's no danger of the US actually leaving? Or does he think that, if it comes to a straight-out fight between his "Mahdi Army" militia and the Sunni Arab "insurgents," he can beat them? I suspect that he probably does believe that ... and I also suspect that he's wrong. If it does come to a full-scale sectarian explosion, it may be that the Sunni Arab "insurgents" will lose in the end, and in the process will lead the larger Sunni Arab community into massive catastrophe (as Milosevic did for the Serbs). But my guess is that before that happens, they will be able to rub out Muqtada al-Sadr without much trouble.

As I say, I hope we don't get the chance to find out.

Jeff Weintraub