Iraq: Silence of the Sadrists

Early in the latest U.S. and Iraqi attempt to bring peace to Baghdad, one high-ranking Iraqi official included Moqtada al-Sadr in his prayers. "Allah, lo yehdih, lo yedahdih," he prayed, a pun that roughly translates as "Allah, show him the way, or kick him aside." As far as the official, who would only speak anonymously, is concerned, his prayer has been answered. Sadr has all but disappeared from the Iraqi scene the past three weeks, and Sadr's Mahdi Army has been notably quiet, too. Officially, the Iraqi government is attributing that to the new Baghdad security plan, part of a surge of forces that will eventually include 21,500 new American troops. But this official says what's really happening is the taming of Moqtada.

The U.S. military announced plans to set up a base inside Shia-dominated Sadr City only late last week. Most U.S. reinforcements are still en route. Yet despite an upsurge in suicide bombings by Sunni extremists, mostly aimed at Shia civilians, the number of reprisal killings is down dramatically since the security plan was launched on Feb. 14. Human Rights Minister Wijdan Salim said last week that "sectarian killings have dropped to a fourth what they had been [two weeks earlier], a very big decline." The senior Iraqi official credits pressure on Sadr from his former patrons in Iran, as well as from Ayatollah Sistani and the Marjaiyah, the Shia clerical leadership in Najaf. He says Iran is withholding military advice and aid to Sadrists as well as other rogue elements, and leaning on them to stop the killings. "Sadr is convinced that there's no real outcome of this struggle, and [death-squad reprisals have] backfired," he says.

Washington takes a less sanguine view of Iran's role in Iraq. U.S. military authorities have publicized a series of weapons seizures in recent days, including material for making the deadly "explosively formed projectiles," or EFPs, bombs allegedly of Iranian origin that can penetrate armored vehicles. But Iranian officials have publicly supported the Baghdad security plan, and have agreed to join a regional conference on Iraq's future with the United States and other nations. "Iran's strategy is to strengthen and support the [Shia-dominated] central government in Iraq," says a senior Iranian intelligence official who asked for anonymity because of his line of work, "when and how it sees appropriate."

The threat of American action certainly had something to do with Sadr's silence, too. Even before Feb. 14, U.S. and Iraqi troops had begun targeting top and middle-level officials in Sadr's organization, arresting several key ones and killing at least two who resisted. Even more critical may have been the intervention of Shia elders. Alarmed at the U.S. crackdown, Sadr had an 11 p.m. meeting with Sistani about a month ago, according to an aide to the grand ayatollah, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with practice in the cleric's office. "He asked the sayyid what he should do about the attacks against him, and [Sistani] told him, 'You have two options: bear the consequences, on you and Shias in general, or withdraw into a corner'."

The corner Sadr chose was likely somewhere in Iran. U.S. and Iraqi officials say he left for Iran two weeks ago. "As far as I know, he's still there," says Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. "He's a secretive man." Both Tehran and Sadr's spokesmen vehemently deny he's hiding in Iran, but it's notable that he has been absent from his usual Friday sermons at the Kufah mosque for three weeks now, and hasn't appeared elsewhere in public. A former Mahdi Army commander in Baghdad, Abu Hazim, says, "Sadr is following a strategy called 'bending before the wind' because he's lost part of his control over the Mahdi Army. It's not like it was in 2004," when an uprising called by the young radical threatened to engulf much of the country.

Some analysts worry that Sadr and Shia extremists are just biding their time. But as additional U.S. troops arrive during the next two months, that may prove an uncomfortable wait. Already, in Karbala, a group of Sadrists recently split after one of them blamed other Sadr followers for killing civilians, including a prominent sheik close to Sistani. Police in Karbala went on to arrest 50 of Sadr's followers. "Even if they lie low, they will lose contact with their people," says the senior Iraqi official. "Even an organized army would lose its command and control." When the surge is over, says U.S. Embassy political officer Margaret Scobie, the Sadrists "may find their opportunities to resume are limited." In the meantime, authorities can breathe a little easier with only one set of extremists to fight.