Thursday, July 27, 2006

Meet the new bad guy

As yet another security plan for Baghdad is implemented, it's already clear that the strategists should get to work on drafting the next one, because this one is going to fail. The reason is clear from the structure it has been given by the Pentagon's outside strategy board -- the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. And the plan is: elevate Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia as the new super bad guys and clamp down on them, despite the fact that they are not driving force of the proto-civil war, and many of their activities are defensive.

First, here are the hints from Thursday's WSJ. The lead editorial (subs. req'd; alt. free link):

On the other hand, the followers of hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are a big faction in parliament and a hard problem.

On the same page, usual suspect, Dan Senor (subs. req'd; alt. free link):

Moqtada al-Sadr and his Sadrists, the Sadriyyun, are as powerful and destructive as ever, forcing the prime minister's hand on Israel and other issues.

Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mehdi army, has been responsible for a considerable share of Iraq's sectarian strife, not to mention the deaths of American soldiers in 2003 and 2004. His power is derived from a combination of family lineage, violent intimidation of rival clerics, and agitation on behalf of Iraq's Shiite underclass. His support is largely concentrated in Sadr City (a Baghdad slum, home to some two million Iraqi Shiites), and in a number of other impoverished neighborhoods throughout southern Iraq.

While the Sadriyyun lack the sophistication, weaponry and social welfare services of Hezbollah, both are funded by Tehran; and both organizations represent the same ethnic, religious and socioeconomic demographic within their respective countries. Mr. Sadr's organization is, in fact, about where Hezbollah was 20 years ago.

This is all preposterous. The actual Iranian-backed Shia organisation is not hiding its intentions, carrying the name Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. They are based in the Iraqi south, which is, like, closer to Iran. For all his faults, al-Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist, reflecting his power base in the capital. Consider also the designated good guy amongst the Shia, Ayatollah al-Sistani. Here's a map of Iran. Take a look at it and then make a wild guess as to where he got his surname. For God's sake, even Hitch knows!

Denunciations of al-Sadr are not even a new strategy. Instead, as Senor makes clear, it's driven by being easy to sell through an equivalence with Hezbollah. If the US is trying to make Shiites not feel persecuted (and just why were the Saudis sitting in on Condi's last meeting before she left for the Middle East?), they're going exactly the wrong way about it.

UPDATE: Speaking of Dan Senor, Slate's Fred Kaplan notes that Iraqi PM al-Maliki's speech to Congress yesterday bears the hallmarks of having been written by the White House -- the same trick that Dan Senor did for then PM Allawi's speech 2 years ago (via Dan Froomkin).

And [30 July], Frank Rich (subs. req'd), who should know better, goes for the new bad guy -- hook, line, and sinker:

The most dangerous figure in Iraq, the home-grown radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is an acolyte of neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam but an ally of Iran who has sworn solidarity to both Hezbollah and Hamas. He commands more than 30 seats in Mr. Maliki’s governing coalition in Parliament and 5 cabinet positions. He is also linked to death squads that have slaughtered Iraqis and Americans with impunity since the April 2004 uprising that killed, among others, Cindy Sheehan’s son, Casey. Since then, Mr. Sadr’s power has only grown, enabled by Iraqi “democracy.”

FINAL UPDATE 15 OCTOBER: Yet another reminder that Moqtada al-Sadr is not the main problem; he opposed the "federalism" legislation (=partition) that the Iranian-backed parties pushed for.

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