Influence Rises but Base Frays for Iraqi Cleric (SABRINA TAVERNISE, 11/13/06, NY Times)
Few have ever described Moktada al-Sadr, the mercurial leader of Iraq’s mightiest Shiite militia, as a statesman.
Yet there he was last month sitting on a pristine couch with the prime minister (no longer cross-legged on the floor), making public calls as well as sending private text messages to aides discouraging sectarianism, and paying visits to the home of Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric.
For years an angry outsider, Mr. Sadr, 33, has moved deep into the inner sanctum of the Iraqi government largely because his followers make up the biggest and most volatile Shiite militia. Now, after more than a year in power, he and his top lieutenants are firmly part of the establishment, a position that has brought new comfort and wealth. That change has shifted the threat for the American military, which no longer faces mass uprisings by Mr. Sadr’s fighters when it enters their turf.
But the taming of Mr. Sadr has produced a paradox: the more settled he becomes in the establishment, the looser his grip is over his fighters on the streets and those increasingly infiltrating the security forces. In the two years since they fought against American tanks at Mr. Sadr’s command, many have broken away from the confines of compromise that bind him, and have taken a far more active role in killing, something his supporters say worries him. He says he is trying to weed them out — 40 were publicly dismissed last month. […]
Mr. Sadr has disavowed a number of his commanders. At a Friday Prayer last month, the names of 40 dismissed Mahdi Army commanders were read aloud at a lectern in front of a sea of men holding umbrellas against the hot sun. Among them were Hassan Salim, the leader of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, and Hajj Shimel, a prominent cleric. Abbas al-Kufi, Mr. Sadr’s strongman enforcer, arrived from Najaf to attend the reading.
That public response fits snugly with the agenda of the American military, which is chipping away at the most corrupt edges of Mr. Sadr’s empire through arrests.
Even though the military has made more than six forays into the area since early August, including an Oct. 25 attempt to arrest Abu Dera, Mr. Sadr has been largely silent, and the only repercussions were a few angry public remarks by Mr. Maliki.
Indeed, the challenge Mr. Sadr presented to the American military in 2004, when his followers fought tanks in flip-flops, seems to have melted away.
“We have arrested people who in 2004 we would have had to move M1 tanks to Sadr City to suppress an uprising over,” said one intelligence official who spoke to reporters in September about Mr. Sadr’s army. That is in part because Mr. Sadr is standing by a newly declared truce with the Americans and also because of the Sadrists’ new proximity to power, well-connected local residents critical of the Mahdi militia say.
One of the reasons democratization works is because once you’re a participant in government any enemy of the state is an enemy of yours.
Cleric al-Sadr may hold Iraq’s future in his hands (Rick Jervis, 11/12/06, USA TODAY)
Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric President Bush once dismissed as the head of a “band of thugs,” has emerged as one of the most powerful forces in Iraq, commanding a large militia and a growing political organization.
U.S. and Iraqi forces passed on a chance to arrest al-Sadr two years ago. Instead, Iraq’s Shiite leaders encouraged him to enter the political process. The idea was to co-opt a threat to the Iraqi government. Critics say the plan backfired, placing Iraq’s future in the hands of a firebrand whose Mahdi Army militia has intensified religious warfare and threatened the country’s stability.
“I believe that the Mahdi Army continues to pose a threat,” Sen. John McCain said in Arizona last week. “I believe al-Sadr has to be taken out.”
That may not be realistic. “There are no good options in dealing with al-Sadr,” says Wayne White, who formerly headed the State Department’s Iraq intelligence team and is now at the Middle East Institute. “He has grown too powerful to be addressed in any reasonable way.”
These two stories nicely illustrate how much perception is shaped by the reporter’s sources.