What's Up With Moqtada al Sadr?


Baghdad, March 6, 2007. No neighborhood in Baghdad has proven more dangerous to American troops than the sprawling, multi-million resident slum of Sadr City, stronghold of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Since Sadr joined the Iraqi government in 2005, though, there's been an unspoken modus vivendi there. American troops stay out of Sadr City, and Sadr's Mahdi Army stops targeting Americans. Both sides have violated this from time to time; Sadr's followers with particularly deadly bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), made with Iranian technology, and Americans with patrols in Mahdi areas and occasional raids of Sadr offices. Those have been blips in an otherwise fairly easy truce. So when the present Baghdad security plan was launched, the big question was whether Americans would patrol Sadr City again, and if they did, whether the Mahdi Army would go back on the warpath. Well they did, and they didn't. Since Monday, troops from the 23rd Infantry's Stryker regiment have been conducting joint patrols and clearing operations in Sadr City in cooperation with the Iraqi army and police. "During operations today," said Lt. Col. Scott R. Bleichwehl, spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad, "local residents were receptive and cooperative with coalition and Iraqi forces." U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the mayor of Sadr City even came out and greeted the American troops warmly. And there was no resistance whatever.

As we reported in NEWSWEEK this week, Moqtada al Sadr has been on his best behavior as a result of pressure on him from the Shia religious leadership, and his Iranian patrons. He's almost completely disappeared from public view, and is widely reported to be in Iran--according to both U.S. military officials and Iraqi government officials. The reaction to the clearing operations is certainly dramatic proof of Moqtada's new, more cooperative posture.

So what's going on, exactly? Moqtada al Sadr still talks about the Americans as "the enemy." His Sadr Trend movement still insists on a U.S. withdrawal. The Americans still consider him a dangerous and unpredictable foe. But Sadr can't afford to see the Baghdad security plan fail. Why? Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki came to power with the swing votes Sadr controlled in the National Assembly. If Maliki is replaced, another Shia figure would not be nearly as beholden to Sadr. U.S. officials say Maliki has moved past his dependence on Sadr, and really is determined to reign in control of the Shia militias. And Sadr himself may be concerned about elements within his Mahdi Army militia who haven't responded well to his own calls for moderating the sectarian violence unleashed by Shias against Sunni civilians, in response to terrorist bombings by Sunni extremists. Today was particularly bad, with suicide bombers once again striking at Shia civilians at their most vulnerable-pilgrims walking in large numbers across Iraq to Arbayin celebrations in the holy city of Karbala. At least 112 died and more than 200 were injured.

Weeks before the Baghdad security plan got underway, and long before the "surge" of new U.S. troops, American forces began rounding up mid-ranking and even some high-ranking Mahdi Army leaders. This was greeted by calls for patience from Sadr Trend officials. In one of Sadr's few comments in recent weeks, posted on a Web site monitored by the SITE Institute, which tracks terrorists pronouncements, he talked about the U.S. as part of the "evil trinity" of the "occupier, the swindler and the Ba'athists". He says the Iraqi security forces are the way forward, not the "security plan controlled by the enemy." This was widely reported as Sadr's denunciamento of the plan, but it is nothing of the sort. His statement is more significant for what it doesn't say, than what it does. He doesn't call for attacks on Americans, he doesn't condemn the government for cooperating with them in the security sweeps.

The Americans, for their part, are treading carefully in Sadr City, where they're employing a fairly novel tactic-"soft knock operations." In other words, instead of kicking down doors and searching house by house, they knock on each door and ask for permission to come in.

Today Sadr's top political representative in the National Assembly, Baha al Araji, was even more explicit about the organization's new attitude. "We support the plan, we are ready to support Iraqi forces even if they're supported by U.S. forces, as long as the Americans are not entering homes," he said. Actually they are, but asking permission seems to be a face-saving formula all around. Araji also pointedly passed over every question about arrests of Mahdi Army officials, repeatedly changing the subject--it didn't seem to concern him in the slightest. He even made what seems to be an appeal for reconciliation. "The conflict between the Sadr Trend and the U.S. can be easily stopped, despite the great enmity between both of them," he said. "First, Americans have realized their loss in Iraq, and the Americans are now seriously thinking of withdrawing during the coming year. The position of the Sadr Trend was always to have a timetable for American withdrawal, therefore if the Americans put this timetable forth over the coming two, three years, this enmity will stop."

It's an extraordinary turn of events. Is Sadr hoping the Americans and the Iraqi government can clean up his own troublemakers in the Mahdi Army for him? Or is he biding his time until they leave? Or has he, as some diplomats are hoping, concluded that he has more to gain by playing politics than shooting Americans? Time will tell.

For the record, Araji says he saw Sadr yesterday, in Najaf, not Iran. And he added that he expects Sadr to lead Friday prayers at the mosque in Kufa this coming Friday, something the Shia leader has avoided doing for the past three weeks of the new security plan.