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07 April 2008

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zanzibar

I think many folks underestimate Moqtada's political skill.

Right from the very beginning he has navigated treacherous waters and come out on top. From challenging Bremer's warrant to sliding out of the neck grip of US forces courtesy of Sistani to the "cleansing" of many Baghdad neighborhoods to his ability of withstand continuous assaults on his forces - he has proven to be a shrewd politician.

His populist message against corruption and the occupation forces, his well armed and it seems on the surface amorphous militia and his unclear ties to the Iranian ayatollahs - assist him in the complex and changing playing field of contemporary Iraq.

Will he win the ultimate prize as the next undisputed ruler of Shia Iraq?

David Habakkuk

One would hardly expect that the Iranians would want to see the military power of the Sadrists seriously undermined at this stage -- as that would weaken the capabilities they could muster to attack U.S. lines of communication in the event of an attack on Iran.

I see that Gareth Porter buttressed his argument that Petraeus had misread the implications of the continued ceasefire by the Sadrists by recycling a story in the Independent in April last year about these being trained in Tehran:

'Petraeus, meanwhile, was convinced that the ability of the Mahdi Army to resist had been reduced by U.S. military actions as well as by its presumed internal disorganisation. His spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, declared in early November, "As we've gone after that training skill levels amongst the enemy, we've degraded their capability..."

'Then came Sadr's announcement Feb. 22 that the ceasefire would be extended. That apparently convinced Petraeus and the Bush White House that they could now launch a large-scale "cordon and search" operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra without great risk of a military response.

'That assumption ignored the evidence that Sadr had been avoiding major combat because he was in the process of reorganising and rebuilding the Mahdi Army into a more effective force. Thousands of Mahdi Army fighters, including top commanders, were sent to Iran for training -- not as "rogue element", as suggested by the U.S. command, but with Sadr's full support. One veteran Mahdi Army fighter who had undergone such training told The Independent last April that the retraining was "part of a new strategy. We know we are against a strong enemy and we must learn proper methods and techniques."'

I don't know how plausible all of this is -- there is so much disinformation around.

Porter's piece is at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/JD02Ak02.html; the Independent story at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-iranian-connection-from-tehran-to-baghdad-444721.html.

Mo

I was amused to read Malikis threat as only last night I had blogged that like what happened to Hamas and Hizballah, the military option had failed, and the political attempt to neuter them was to come.

Colonel, I think we have to join the dots now and decide that there is a much bigger war going on than the ones we are seeing in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and via various small time scuffles in other Arab countries. There is a nationalist and dare I say it, pan-Arab popular movement that is rising from amongst the poor of the Arab world. Represented by the Brotherhood in Egypt, Hizballah, Hamas and Jaish Al Mahdi, this movement is starting to strike fear, not only into those looking to control the Middle East agenda externally but also, and especially, into the "traditional" leaders of the Arab world.

It seems to me that these seperate battles are one big battle, a battle that is for the future of the Arab world (but inronically being largely supported by the Iranians).

The Kings, Emirs and respective Presidents-for-life, know that one victory for any of the these populist groups may start a cascade effect that will ulitmately see them lose their thrones and their lavish and opulent lifestyles.

For the US and Israel, a victory for these decidedly anti-Israeli groups would be a distaster as the old divide and conquer (or more likely divide and sit back and watch them destroy each other) will no longer apply.

How this battle pans out right now is very unpredictable and no one it seems is going to go down without a fight (bar maybe the March 14th forces in Lebanon), so it could all get very messy very quickly.


The greatest danger to the US and Israel is to view the repeated survival and strength of these groups after each attack as a fluke, to continue to disregard them and to continue to try and find a way to "take them out".

Because they are populist groups, made up of the masses rather than some feudal, tribal or familial elite, you cannot destroy them without mass murder. And the more it is attempted the more popular they become and the bigger the movement gets, making it even more difficult to defeat them.

But Im guessing this administration will continue to believe it can defeat them, much like Olmert thought a few days of air strikes would wipe out Hizballah or Maliki thought he could remove Sadr from Basra.

And Im guessing Israel will continue to believe in its military superiority.

And Im guessing the Arab elite will continue to believe that their jails and torture chambers will continue to strike enough fear into people that they will remain subdued.

We will see.

Binh

This is the best analysis I've read so far as to why Sadr would be willing to disband the Mahdi Army:
This appeal to Najaf and Qom is a strong move. He can hardly lose in this. If he is advised by the ijma' (consensus) of the hawza to retain his forces, then he will do so with religious sanction. If advised to disarm, then Maliki will be in the position of either allowing Sadr to run his candidates relatively unmolested or of being seen to have "rigged" the election against the consensus of the hawza.

Thanks to the Colonel for that. Wouldn't disbanding the Mahdi Army be a huge risk, since it would leave his people defenseless in the face of what could be vicious repression at the hands of the Badr brigades, Iraqi security forces, and the U.S. military? If he disbands the Mahdi Army, and those forces crack down hard on his people, how will he justify fighting back?

JohnH

Why would Maliki (Bush) want to rig the elections? Quite simply, there are 9 months left to get the legal framework in place to assure Bush's legacy--looting Iraq's oil. Sadr, a nationalist, stands in the way. A Sadr victory would assure that Big Oil would have to share much more of the profits, currently running about $99/barrel (Iraq's oil costs less than $1/barrel to get out of the ground).

As Mo correctly notes, "the military option had failed, and the political attempt to neuter them was to come." Ah yes, democracy building at work.

PR

Ya think those Iranians are a little slicker than GW?!?!?!

stanley Henning

So, it has become clearer and clearer that the maniacal, suicidal, ideological, Neocons, who have shown they cannot tame the Iraqi beast, have greatly assisted our slump into an economic morass making us less, not more, capable of confronting more serious "potential" challenges from Iran, China, North Korea , and the likes for the near term as a minimum. By the way, wasn't it disgusting watching Feith on 60 Minutes brushing off the Iraq fiasco as OK because they were, after all, a "potential" serious threat -- to whom? I leave this for readers to ponder.

Jimmy

Col,

Perhaps this is a Manchurian conspiracy sanctioned by the highest elements of the US government, where they goad Maliki into attacking Sadr, to buttress Sadr's street creds. If Sadr was a US agent, his rise would ensure American control.

Then again, we would have to have confidence of the federal gov't's ability to carry out a conspiracy like this.

Although it is interesting to note that Allawi is allied w/ Sadr.

Pale Rider

Wouldn't disbanding the Mahdi Army be a huge risk, since it would leave his people defenseless in the face of what could be vicious repression at the hands of the Badr brigades, Iraqi security forces, and the U.S. military?

He has to offer to disband--it's a play for legitimacy.

He can inject new enthusiasm into the ranks if he offers to have them disbanded and has that offer returned with an order to stay organized. He can hold up unbloodied hands and say "I have offered to send you home and I have offered peace--that has been rejected by a higher authority." And they're not really a militia--they're organized, have leaders and officers who are known publicly, etc. They are not a rabble. They are political and they are militarized. I keep seeing bogus reports popping up in the media that these are running gunmen with light weapons who have no tactics or skill. Clearly, they stopped armored vehicles and thousands of troops in their tracks and forced them to withdraw with those light arms and tactics.

What does a lawyer know about cross examining a witness? Never ask a question you already know the answer to.

If Sadr is allowed legitimacy and is allowed to inject new enthusiasm into the ranks of those who are doing the fighting, then it's tacit proof the surge has unravelled and no American response can really have an effect on the pro-Sadr forces. An all-out Sadr city battle will create a humanitarian catastrophe (worse than the one we already see) and perhaps that's another calculation being made--has the ethnic cleansing of Iraq really been completed? Who stands to gain if a few neighborhoods full of undesireables are swept out of Baghdad?

Alex

I quite agree that an appeal to Najaf (and Qom) is a strong move. However you don't mention the possibility that he doesn't receive a response, either negative or positive. Given the absence of Sistani from the political scene recently, it is quite possible that there will be no response. That would leave Muqtada in the air wouldn't it?

(Irony Alert - one would hope that he will also seek the guidance of the Mahdi in this matter)

OK, I understand that the reference here is to G. Bush and T. Blair talking to God. Evidently Muslims, and particularly Shi'a, do not talk to God. If Shi'a have direct communication, they receive a dream from 'Ali, on his charger. Fatima may alternatively appear, but I forget the details. The Mahdi, disappeared in 874 at a young age, is not much talked of, probably because he didn't do much in his life.

Your previous remarks were correct: Shi'ism is hierarchical, and the right move religiously is to appeal to those who have succeeded the now disappeared line of Imams (descended from the Prophet), that is the Ayatollahs of Najaf, in particular the senior Ayatollah, Sistani.

Mo

Sunday Times has the answer. It was Iranians doing the fighting in Basra all along!

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article3690010.ece

I see the Israelis have been giving Petraeus lessons in excuses

Walter Lang

Alex

Either reponse is possible IMO.

The mahdi is not God at all. As you say he is the long "absent" 12th Imam. The reference was not to GWB and company. As I have written here before, Moqtada has been reported in the correspondence of his group as having met with the mahdi to discuss policy matters.

12er Shiiism can only be seen as hierarchical in contrast to Sunni Islam. In fact the grand mujtahids are dependent on ijma' among themselves and voluntary acceptance of their teaching among the faithful. pl

Mo

The more I think about this the less sense it makes. Sadr is, like you say, playing it clever but he is also taking a big gamble. The constituency he represents feels emboldened and not so disenfranchised by the strength of the Mahdi Army. That constituency may not want to risk giving up this strength.

What happens if he calls on them to lay down their arms and the majority rebel or refuse? He would be then finished politically.

In regards to his "discussions with the Mahdi", I have not seen the correspondence but could the name not be used as a codename for someone? Someone very specific?

zanzibar

Mo

It seems its the strategy for Petraeus to pitch Congress that he needs all the "surged" forces. And I suppose it makes Cheney happy since it will keep his hopes up of convincing Dubya for one last throw of the dice.

But you never know?? With so much disinformation its hard to discern the truth. Although it surprises me each time why an Iranian "operative" has not been captured on the battlefield at least for a PR spectacle. Maybe that says it all.

Bobo

Sadr has come along way in 5 years. He seems to have gained the most in this period. Now he is seeking guidance in Najaf and Qom and possibly with the Mahdi should he not be satisfied with their answer.

Odds are he will disarm his followers and solidify his position politically for the time being. Especially since he can advise his followers to re-arm in the future if needed.

Now, five years in why are we not closer to this guy who looks to have more control than anyone else.

Ah, no sense thinking as we are still going to have to let them go at each other whenever we pull out.

Mo

Zanzibar,
Why has an Iranian "operative" has not been captured on the battlefield? Because they can appear and disappear at the drop of a disinformationists hat!

Seriously though, for "Iranian operatives" please read "we cant believe that a bunch of two-bit backward 3rd worlders can make life so hard for us so we will blame it on our most powerful enemy so that our troops dont look so inept and become demoralised by being beaten by people we have told them are nothing but a rag tag group of criminals".


Bobo,
Why are 'we' not closer to this guy who looks to have more control than anyone else? Because he opposes the occupation, which is why has more control. An unfortunate catch 22 for the occupier is that your opponent is going to be popular and the minute you get him onside, he will no longer be popular.

David W

Why not just declare the Sadrists terrorists? It's worked so well on Hizbullah, Hamas and the Quds!

Pale Rider

Sadr has come along way in 5 years.

I would vote for that young man as the "smartest man in Iraq."

Despite having what amounts to a bullseye on his forehead, he has survived. His movement has swelled in size. He can move about the country, but he probably doesn't need to leave the comfort of his home. He can go to Iran when need be. He can stay in the holy city and communicate through his vast number of followers.

Contrast that with Zarqawi--who made the mistake of being a foreigner calling himself a member of "al Qaeda" and had the misfortune of being videotaped trying to operate an automatic weapon. Had Zarqawi created a mystique for himself as the "liberator" of Iraq, his fate might have been different.

Sadr, being merely alive at this point, is easily the smartest man in Iraq. Smarter than any of the politicians, smarter than the puppets, smarter than anyone who has opposed or colluded with the Americans. He is, in short, a chubby fox, and as long as he keeps a cellular phone away from his ear, he'll probably live another forty years.

Walrus

My guess is that Sadr is at least two moves ahead of Maliki and four moves ahead of Bush.

I think we may get a taste of this tomorrow in the supposed million man Sadrist demonstration in Baghdad, which I will closely watch.

If Sadr did "disarm" - whcih means what you want it to mean, and adopts a Gandhi like civil disobedience program, then Maliki and Bush are in very dangerous waters if they are seen to be suppressing a populst movement, not that the American media would care.

FDChief

There seems to be a lot of people here willing to go the over on Mookie...not so sure, myself. Over at "missing links" the "story of the day" is a possible Green Zone coalition against the Sadrists (here's the link: http://arablinks.blogspot.com/2008/04/story-of-day.html) that the U.S. has been working on since '06.

I agree that Sadr has been playing a tough hand well. But if the Sahwas/IAF, SIIC/Dawa AND the Kurds throw in against him...mmmm...

My personal tke on this is a real confusion about why we (the U.S.) has chosen the Sadrists as the Bad Guys. ISTM that they're no more radical and Islamic than SIIC - they're just poor and just don't like the gringos. Take away the 12er crap and they're Peronistas in a turban. And the U.S. got on just fine with the old caudillo.

We should be able to work with the guy - he's got a lot of support and he doesn't like the Iranians much. And he wants us out as much as most of us want to BE out. Seems like the basis of a working relationship there.

johnf

Pale Rider

i He can inject new enthusiasm into the ranks if he offers to have them disbanded and has that offer returned with an order to stay organized. He can hold up unbloodied hands and say "I have offered to send you home and I have offered peace--that has been rejected by a higher authority." And they're not really a militia--they're organized, have leaders and officers who are known publicly, etc. They are not a rabble. They are political and they are militarized. I keep seeing bogus reports popping up in the media that these are running gunmen with light weapons who have no tactics or skill. Clearly, they stopped armored vehicles and thousands of troops in their tracks and forced them to withdraw with those light arms and tactics.

I think your piece can be summed up in one word - Hezbollah. Hezbollah's fighters are bakers, car mechanics, pillars of the community during the day, an extremely effective fighting force at night. al-Sadr models himself on Nasrullah and Hezbollah.

anna missed

If we look back to the 2006 joint U.S./Iraqi Army operation "Forward Together" it may provide some insight into what the current anti-Sadr initiatives are about. The continuation of civil war in the process of political consolidation. Contrary to popular belief, the 2006 escalation in civil war violence - the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad - did not immediately follow the bombing of the Samarra Mosque, but rather escalated (in the number of civilian casualties) later in the summer and corresponded exactly to operation Forward Together. Throughout the subsequent months the Sunni population (and its supporting function of the insurgency) was ethnically cleansed from many Baghdad neighborhoods, and driven either into Anbar or into exile. Sadr, for his part in concert to the operation gained in security for Sadr City, as well as assuming much of the blame for what Maliki and the Badr carried out through policy.

The surge, from this perspective, has been the recipient of what was gained from the operation. The Sunnis were driven out of Baghdad and into an alliance of convienence or necessity, with the U.S. Sadr, gained enough real estate and security to call a stand down to his military operations against the coalition. This proved a self fulfilling prophesy, in that Maliki started this phase of the civil war (by the operation) and disguised its resolution as a cover and result of the surge.

Currently, the only thing standing in the path of his consolidation of power - and the twin goals of the Badr/U.S. of soft partition, extended U.S. deployment, and privatization (of the oil) is the Sadr trend, whom still insists on all the contrary. And stands to benefit most from what the U.S. must do to placate the Sunni alliance, and ruin the entire escapade. So we now have a new operation "Knights" or whatever, that by all definitions may be the second phase of intentional civil war instigated by the U.S./Maliki, government, this time against Sadr, to ethnically cleanse their resistance to his government. Except, these folks have neither the means or place in which to flee, so may well call for a show of cards.

Curious

Let's be clear at this very moment. The reason we need to get out of Iraq is unfolding.

We are playing in Iraq political process. We will forever need to prop up Maliki with ever more guns (not less) after any election.

Everybody in Iraq knows the election rigged to maintain an occupation stooge.

It's only a question of time when the civil war broke out again.

jon

I doubt Sadr has any intention of disarming the Mahdi Army and standing them down. He might make a show of a token disarming of a small portion in certain areas that will play well for the cameras and boost him politically. But no actual surrender of weaponry or positions has been suggested.

Sadr's offer is an excellent diplomatic move, and he wins either way. If the ayatollah's tell his to disarm, then they become the guarantors of his people and responsible for their well being. If Sadr's people start being killed, displaced, targeted and harassed, then he can complain, and void the agreement. This binds ISCI and Maliki to protect Sadr.

Since the Mahdi Army didn't provoke the latest fight, haven't attack any mosques or clergy, and haven't harassed the populace, the ayatollahs may see no need to force them to disarm. They may also not want to touch this hot potato, as they will be tainted if anything goes wrong.

Maliki only came to power with Sadr's blessing and support. Maliki has since tried to cut Sadr out of the government and the spoils. Sadr then engineered walkouts of parliament that have weakened the government and made impossible to pass legislation. Maliki wants to retain power in the next election, and it's clear that Sadr won't be an ally any longer.

Sadr has been elevated in stature and strengthened politically by his truces. His political and social work has continued, which has brought more adherents and power to him. His Mahdi army also used that moment to continue to ethnically cleanse Sunnis from Baghdad - as did the Badr group.

Sadr has tolerated waves of car bombings in Sadr City, isolation, targeting and attriting of some of his forces by the US, but he won't stand for a full on assault that will decimate his forces. They will fight back. Perhaps not in Sadr City. But you really don't want to take on all 2 million inhabitants there unless absolutely necessary.

Apparently, Sadr has called off his Million Mahdi March, due to the continuing attacks on Sadr City and the government's restriction of travel from the south to Baghdad. This will free his people to do less marching and more fighting.

I'll disagree with Mo's first post and say that I don't believe that the various conflicts in the Middle East are manifestations of the same Arab campaign against the West. I think that is wrong in formulation and in detail. I will agree that there is widespread hatred for the policies and activities of the US and Israel, and that much of the Arab world believes that they are under unified assault.

I do think that we are seeing the evolution of common tactics to resist the more powerful armies and weaponry of the US and Israel. It is obviously foolhardy to attempt to mass forces and attack the US frontally, and there is a weapons disparity of several orders of magnitude, which makes this an uneven contest. To survive and fight, different tactics have to be used.

We are seeing that remotely detonated mines and bombs, car bombs, suicide attacks, sniping, hit and run mortar bombardments, street skirmishes with RPGs, abduction and torture/murder, and ethnic cleansing being used in Iraq to great effect.

Hezbollah seems to have more advanced weaponry, better training and tactics, that allow it to undertake complicated unit maneuvers, better communications, and elaborate defensive networks. While Hamas has acquired crude rockets, but not a complex or coordinated organization.

All of these groups, and others, are being supported to one degree or another by Iran. But Iran likely has only limited ability to command and coordinate their activities, much less to unite them in a multi-front conflict.

I'm certain that Iran does see strategic purpose in all of this, and will do what it can to advance its interests. It is to their advantage for the US and Israel to be off balance and harried so that they cannot significantly threaten Iran and its objectives. Israel encircled with angry, armed Palestinians certainly limits Israel's range of motion. The US is pinned down in Iraq with both Sunni's and Shia's being restive and unreliable and duplicitous.

What is interesting about last week's skirmishes and show of force in Basra and the South, is just how fragile the fruits of the Surge have been, how rapidly the ground can shift, and how the political unification and strengthening of the government that the Surge was supposed to permit, has not occurred. With Cheney in the loop, Maliki could end up like Diem.

David Habakkuk

jon

'Hezbollah seems to have more advanced weaponry, better training and tactics, that allow it to undertake complicated unit maneuvers, better communications, and elaborate defensive networks. While Hamas has acquired crude rockets, but not a complex or coordinated organization.'

But Hezbollah has provided an example of what can be done -- and how forces which once seemed invincible can be defeated.

Quite how difficult is it to follow?

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