How Moqtada al-Sadr Controls U.S. Fate in Iraq
He can deal out death through his black-clad followers and roil the government any time he chooses. Why Moqtada al-Sadr may end up deciding America's fate in Iraq.
By Jeffrey Bartholet
Dec. 4, 2006 issue - One way to understand Moqtada al-Sadr is to think of him as a young Mafia don. He aims for respectability, and is willing to kill for it. Yet the extent of his power isn't obvious to the untrained eye. He has no standing army or police force, and the Mahdi Army gunmen he employs have no tanks or aircraft. You could mistake him—at your peril—for a common thug or gang leader. And if he or his people were to kill you for your ignorance, he wouldn't claim credit. But the message would be clear to those who understand the brutal language of the Iraqi Street.
American soldiers who patrol Sadr's turf in Baghdad understand. They can spot his men. "They look like they're pulling security," says First Lt. Robert Hartley, a 25-year-old who plays cat and mouse with the Mahdi Army in the Iraqi capital. The Sadrists use children and young men as lookouts. When GIs get out of their Humvees to patrol on foot, one of the watchers will fly a kite, or release a flock of pigeons. Some of Sadr's people have even infiltrated top ranks of the Iraqi police. Capt. Tom Kapla, 29, says he knows who they are: "They look at you, and you can tell they want to kill you."
Sadr is a unique force in Iraq: a leader from the majority Shiites who has resisted American occupation from the start. He's a populist, a nationalist and an Islamic radical rolled into one. Part of his power is simply that he's powerful. Large numbers of impoverished Shiites view Sadr as their guardian—the one leader who is willing not just to stand up for them but to strike back on their behalf. "People count on the militias," says Lieutenant Hartley, who deals with Sadr's thugs on a regular basis. "It's like the mob—they keep people safe."
Sadr still insists his main fight is with foreign invaders. He's the one Shia leader who has opposed the U.S. occupation from the beginning, and who has continued to call for a strict timetable for American withdrawal. An overwhelming majority of Iraqis now agree with him. A September poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that 63 percent of 501 Iraqi Shiites surveyed supported attacks against Americans. Even in Baghdad, where ethnic tensions are worst, Shiites agree with Sunnis on one thing: the poll found that 80 percent of the capital's Shiites wanted U.S. forces to leave within a year. That number has changed dramatically in a matter of months. A January poll found that most Shiites wanted U.S.-led troops to be reduced only "as the security situation improves."
In Washington, some politicians still talk about "victory," while others aim only to stabilize the country and leave with some semblance of dignity. Many in the U.S. capital are dusting off yesterday's proposals for tomorrow's problems—more training, more troops, disarming the militias, more stability in Baghdad. The GOP presidential front runner for 2008, John McCain, would prefer to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by 20,000, at least temporarily. He has also called for Sadr to be "taken out." But it may be too late.
The movement may now be more important than the man. Sadr "is faced with a common problem," says Toby Dodge of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "He can't control the use of his brand name, the use of his legitimacy." Some elder followers of Sadr's father have broken away, disillusioned with the son. And some young toughs seem to be freelancing where they can. Renegade factions could eventually threaten Sadr's power. If he were to fall, "you'll end up with 30 different movements," says Vali Nasr, a scholar and author who has briefed the Bush administration on Iraq. "There are 30 chieftains who have a tremendous amount of local power. If you remove him, there will be a scramble for who will inherit this movement ... It's a great danger doing that. You may actually make your life much more difficult."
How the Mahdi Army Works
For now, Sadr and his Mahdi Army have the initiative. They can stir up trouble without much fear of retribution. A case in point: When kidnappers grabbed an Iraqi-American translator in Baghdad last month, U.S. soldiers sealed off the Sadr City neighborhood where they believed he was being held. But Prime Minister Maliki—who depends on Sadr for political support—quickly ordered the Americans to remove their roadblocks. Maliki has also forced the U.S. military to release men picked up during raids in Sadr City on suspicion of belonging to Shiite death squads.
When the U.S. fails to respond to provocation, it loses credibility. And when it does respond, it can also lose. Last week, before the massive car-bomb attacks, U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out a pinprick raid in Sadr City to get intelligence on the kidnapped military translator, Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie. Like so many other U.S. military strikes in Iraq, however, it came at a price. American forces captured seven militiamen, including one who might have information on al-Taayie. But police said a young boy was among three people killed in the raid. A member of Parliament from Sadr's movement promptly showed up at the morgue, and held the corpse of the boy in his arms as he railed against the American occupation.
U.S. forces have tried hard to win hearts and minds. They've spent $120.9 million on completed construction projects in Sadr City, for instance—building new sewers and power lines—and projects worth an additional $197 million are underway. But the United States doesn't always get credit for the good works. When the Americans doled out cash to construct four health clinics in Sadr City during the past year, Sadr's men quickly removed any hint of U.S. involvement. They also put up signs giving all credit to their boss, according to Lt. Zeroy Lawson, an Army intelligence officer who works in the area.
The Mahdi Army has other sources of cash. It's taken control of gas stations throughout large parts of Baghdad, and dominates the Shia trade in propane-gas canisters, which Iraqis use for cooking. Sometimes the militiamen sell the propane at a premium, earning healthy profits; at other times they sell it at well below market rates, earning gratitude from the poor and unemployed.
A key source of Sadr's income is Muslim tithes—or khoms—collected at mosques. But his militiamen also run extortion and protection rackets—demanding money to keep certain businesses and individuals "safe." One Iraqi in a tough neighborhood, who did not want to reveal his name out of fear, says he pays the local Mahdi Army the equivalent of $13 a month for protection.
Analysts believe that Iran has also provided support to Sadr, but not much. Tehran began supplying Shia insurgents, including the Mahdi Army, with a special type of roadside bomb, using a shaped charge, in May 2005. These are often disguised as rocks and are easy to manufacture locally. But diplomats say they are made to the exact design perfected by Iranian intelligence and supplied to Lebanese Hizbullah in the 1980s.
Yet Tehran's main Shiite clients in Iraq are rivals of Sadr, who is often critical of Persian influence. Sadr worries that Iran may be trying to infiltrate his movement, and he's almost surely right. Fatah al-Sheikh, who is close to Sadr, says the boss sent a private letter to loyal imams around Baghdad in the past two weeks identifying 10 followers he believed were suspect. They had been using the Mahdi Army name, but Sadr believes they're really tools of Iranian intelligence, says Sheikh.
Sadr has tried to distance himself from atrocities, insisting that they're carried out by renegades or impostors. Many Sunnis, to whom Sadr has become a dark symbol of Shiite perfidy, don't buy it. "If he says, 'Kill Alusi,' I will be killed," says Mithal al-Alusi, a moderate Sunni member of Parliament. "If he says, 'Don't kill Alusi,' I will not be killed ... Nobody can go against his orders or wishes." The Association of Muslim Scholars, which is loosely linked with Sunni insurgents, says the Mahdi Army has attacked some 200 Sunni mosques, and killed more than 260 imams and mosque workers.
All the killings will be remembered, and it will be a miracle if they go unanswered. Memories of martyrdom—and the desire for revenge—can last forever. Last Friday marked the anniversary, on the Islamic calendar, of the killing of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and his two eldest sons. After the previous day's bombings, Moqtada told government officials that he was out of the country. But that seems to have been a feint—to keep possible enemiesoff balance. In fact, heappeared at the Kufah Mosque, where his father used to lead worshipers in chants of "No, no to America; no, no to Israel; no, no to the Devil!"
As word spread that Moqtada would lead prayers, people crowded into the mosque, most of them clad in black as a sign of mourning. Sadr asked worshipers to pray for his dead relatives, and also for those who had been killed in Sadr City. He again called for the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. He urged a top Sunni sheik to issue three fatwas: one against the killing of Shiites, another against joining Al Qaeda and the third to rebuild the shrine in Samarra. He compared his father's followers to those of the Prophet Muhammad. "After the prophet died," he intoned, "some of his followers deviated from his teachings, and the same has happened with followers of my father." The "cursed trio"—Americans, British and Israelis—were trying to divide Iraq. "We Iraqis—Sunnis and Shia—will always be brothers."
No one in Iraq talks about arresting Sadr for the murder of al-Khoei anymore. That seems like ages ago—back when Sadr's armed supporters were estimated in the hundreds, compared with many thousands today. Now diplomats speak of trying to keep Sadr inside the political system, hoping he can tame his followers. He's a militant Islamist and anti-occupation, they say, but he's also a nationalist, and not as close to Iran as some of his rivals. Nobody knows whether Sadr is dissembling when he speaks about Iraqi unity, or preparing for all-out war. What is clear—more today than ever before—is that it's time to stop underestimating him.
posted by Steve @ 12:58:00 AM