February 22, 2008

Al-Sadr extends his ceasefire – good choice, Muqtada

Radical Shi’a cleric as-Sayid* Muqtada al-Sadr reportedly has extended his Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army, or JAM) ceasefire for another six months. Not only is this good for prospects in Iraq, it is a good decision on his part as well. I submit that his decision was guided by a realization that renewing hostilities against the American and improved Iraqi forces does not hold much promise.

When American “surge” forces began to arrive in Baghdad and al-Anbar governorate a little over a year ago, al-Sadr instructed his JAM to lie low and not engage the Americans, lie low and wait for the day when they emerge as a political force. In August 2007, he decreed a formal ceasefire. It was a smart move then, and it’s a smart move now.

Al-Sadr, never thought of a being particularly astute politically, finally got it right. He not only lowered the level of sectarian violence – before the increased number of American troops did it for him – he sought to make himself more acceptable to the Shi’a population by continuing his Islamic education. Al-Sadr currently is a hawjat al-islam, a level below ayatollah. For him to be taken seriously in the Shi’a hierarchy, he needs to be an ayatollah, like his famous father (actually he was a "grand ayatollah") and father-in-law, both of whom were murdered on the orders of Saddam Husayn. He also is related to many others with impeccable religious credentials.

Al-Sadr is positioning himself to be a leader in the Shi’a community for the future. At some point, the Americans will leave the country and the Iraqis will have to stand alone. Given the number of Shi’a in the population – over 60 percent - it is ineveitable that they will wield most of the power. Al-Sadr wants to be part of the power bloc that runs the country. Acquiring better religious credentials is a positive step toward that goal.

Abrogating the self-declared ceasefire and taking on the Americans while they are in surge mode is not a good idea. Since the “Anbar Awakening,” al-Qa’idah in Iraq has been dealt a severe blow and is on the run. Iraqi military and security forces are much improved. If al-Sadr were to change tactics and renew attacks on American or Iraqi forces, he would find himself on the losing end. People in Iraq like the newfound security, or at least the significantly lower levels of violence in the country. Should al-Sadr foment a return to sectarian violence, he risks losing whatever popular support he may now enjoy.

Muqtada, you are playing it surprisingly smart thus far. I am one of those who supported the earlier thought that you were part of the problem and should have been eliminated. I take it you have seen the light. Continue this way and you just might get out of this alive.

* As-Sayyid literally mean “mister” in Arabic, but in Shi’a Islam is a title indicating a direct male descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. It entitles him to wear the black turban.