The Return of al-Sadr
Given the combination of SIIC leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's [wiki] absence from the Shia political scene, the training Sadr received in Iran, and the timing Tehran chose for his return, Moqtada al-Sadr has obviously returned strong. Strong enough to summon seven Iraqi governors to meet him and listen to his instructions about how they should run their respective provinces in central and southern Iraq at the same time his militiamen were fighting the police forces of at least one of those provinces.
In the speech Sadr made at that meeting he called for the peaceful coexistence and cooperation of the police and army on one side, and the Mahdi Army on the other.
Setting aside the fact that endorsing an armed outlaw militia is a brazen violation of the constitution and criminal law (militias that existed prior to OIF are something of a different case, though they too remain constitutionally unacceptable), the meeting sets a dangerous precedent. Sadr is presenting himself as a head of state, leading senior state officials to his meeting like sheep, and challenging the power of the legitimate leaders of the country.
Maliki reacted quickly and gathered the governors around his table in an attempt to minimize Sadr's influence, and ordered the governors to cleanse their security forces of any elements whose loyalties lie outside of the Iraqi government. It remains unclear which man made a bigger impact. And it remains painfully disappointing that no one in the government did anything to condemn Sadr's move, or publicly denounce his undermining of the structure of the state.
It's become clear now that Iraq will not become a successful state when such violations of the law can happen in the open and remain unchecked. Confronting Sadr's militia with limited operations is not enough-it's time to deal with him seriously.
The declared objective of the new strategies emanating from Washington and Baghdad is to enforce the rule of law and bring outlaws to justice. Our government persists in saying that no one, including members of that government, is above the law. But this promise has not been translated into action thus far. It makes sense if the reason for the delay in taking serious action to put an end to Sadr's flouting of the law was a lack of troops, but I'd also expect it to mean that this action should coming soon.
Four years of hesitation have only served to make Sadr stronger and the situation worse, but we have nothing to fear. They can't make more trouble than they already have. While Al-Qaeda poses a serious security challenge in some provinces, Sadr threatens the future of the whole country. He can paralyze or disrupt the proper functioning of whole ministries and provinces.
The nature of the Mahdi Army means that without political guidance and a figurehead to rally around they would be reduced to making trouble in the streets like any other gang. But they wouldn't be able to control the institutions of state.
In light of the talk among our British friends of leaving Iraq in 12 months, the south will be in great danger, and a tough decision must be made before that time comes. By the time Sadr can manipulate the civil authority, or Iraqi officers, the number of soldiers we can train and equip won't make a difference.
Sadr is not simply an outlaw; he represents Iran's project in Iraq just like Hamas and Nasrallah represent it in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. These are the three arms of Iran in the Middle East that have worked consistently to ruin every emerging democratic project. And these arms must be cut off sooner rather than later.
Omar Fadhil is Baghdad editor for Pajamas Media; his own blog is Iraq The Model.