July 19, 2010

Al-Sadr in Damascus - another step in his journey to rule Iraq?

Muqtada al-Sadr with Bashar al-Asad and with Iyad 'Alawi in Damascus

The quest for relevance and legitimacy
In his latest bid to regain relevance in internal Iraqi politics, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited Damascus, Syria, to meet (separately) with Syrian president Bashar al-Asad and fellow Iraqi politician Iyad 'Alawi. The meeting between al-Sadr and al-Asad appeared to be a meeting of two lesser leaders who both hope to be relevant again in the politics of the region. Unfortunately, the presence of the respected Dr. 'Alawi tends to legitimize both al-Sadr and al-Asad.

Muqtada al-Sadr has lapsed into relative obscurity since he fled to Iran in the face of the American troop surge of 2007. Al-Sadr, leader of the Shi'a militia known as the jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi, or JAM), wisely ordered his followers to not confront the reinforced American combat units knowing that it would only mean heavy casualties among his followers. Al-Sadr himself sought refuge in Iran as he believed that he was a target for the coalition forces.

I think al-Sadr's fears of being captured or killed by American forces was a fair assessment on his part. Al-Sadr had been implicated in several high-level murders and his militia had killed scores of American troops. Current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has been reluctant to do anything against al-Sadr because al-Sadr is a favorite of al-Maliki's Iranian supporters.

Once safe in Iran, Al-Sadr began a course of Koranic study at the hawza (religious school) in Qom to attain the title of ayatollah to buttress his religious credentials - he is currently a hawjat al-islam, much too junior for the level of leadership to which he aspires. At some point, he hopes to cash in on his family name - the al-Sadr family is revered among Iraqi Shi'a and suffered greatly at the hands of Saddam Husayn - and rise to be the major power broker in the country, if not its prime minister.

Al-Sadr's decision to travel to Damascus for a face-to-face meeting with the Syrian president is interesting. There is no doubt that Iran played a role in this choice - Iran and Syria have been close allies since the early days of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. It gives al-Asad the appearance of being a power broker in his own right and a player in what happens in neighboring Iraq in the future.

Ordinarily, I would have dismissed the meeting as merely an attempt for al-Sadr to demonstrate that he still has influence in Iraq despite his residency in Iran, and the choice of venue merely a convenience since Damascus is friendly territory for Iran and clients of Iran. There should be no doubt that both al-Asad and al-Sadr are exactly that.

Enter Iyad 'Alawi
I was disappointed and dismayed to see the presence of my friend and former co-conspirator Doctor Iyad 'Alawi in Damascus. His presence lends credence and legitimacy to the meeting between Bashar al-Asad and Muqtada al-Sadr. During an assignment with the CIA in the mid-1990's, I worked closely with Iyad and his Iraqi National Accord (al-wifaq) in an attempt to foment a coup d'etat against Saddam Husayn. (See my earlier piece for NBC News, A personal note on the execution of Saddam Husayn, December 2006.)

'Alawi met with the Syrian president and al-Sadr in separate discussions over the future of Iraq - a timely subject given the delay in forming a new government in the wake of the March 2010 elections. In those elections for the 325-seat National Assembly, Iyad's al-Iraqiyah Party won 91 seats, al-Maliki's al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah Party won 89, and al-Sadr's bloc won 39. Of note, all three are Shi'a Muslims.

In my opinion, Iyad 'Alawi is the greatest hope for a unified and accepted government in Iraq. (See my earlier piece, Iyad 'Alawi - the right choice for Iraq, March 2010.) As a Shi'a, he has standing in that community, although he remains secular in his outlook. That also allows him to gain buy-in from the Sunni community.

Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Nuri al-Maliki will not depart gracefully. Al-Maliki wants to maintain his power at all costs, probably on orders from what many believe are his Iranian masters. Al-Maliki' detractors have nicknamed him Nuri al-Irani (Nuri the Iranian) and derisively call his office al-sajad al-irani (the Iranian carpet).

If al-Sadr throws his seats behind al-Maliki, that makes forming a coalition more difficult for 'Alawi. 'Alawi's trip to Damascus was likely aimed at heading off that potentiality. For Iraq's sake, I hope he was successful. We do not need either al-Sadr or al-Maliki in positions of power and influence in Iraq - they both are too close to the mullahs in Tehran.

The Turkish sideshow
Not to be left out, Turkey dispatched its foreign minister to Damascus to meet with President al-Asad about the situation in Iraq. This move fits in with Turkey's recent efforts to insert itself more into the politics of the region, filling what is perceived in many Arab and Middle Eastern capitals as a power vacuum created by the apparent failure of American leadership in the region.

The Obama Administration's outreach efforts to both Syria and Iran have failed, Turkey is drifting away from its close alliances with Washington and Tel Aviv, and American relations with Israel are at a low point. In May of this year, Turkey and Brazil attempted to negotiate a deal with Iran over its nuclear program - again as a result of the lack of American leadership on this issue. Ankara has also proposed a Turkish-Iranian-Syrian trilateral alliance, a move hard to imagine a few years ago.

The bottom line
Muqtada al-Sadr should have been neutralized long ago. American troops had him in their sights as early as the fall of 2003 and were called off by then Coalition Provisional Authority leader Jerry Bremer. Bremer, among other things, was responsible for the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the growth of the insurgency. He probably did more than any one person to damage American efforts in the country. His refusal to allow the U.S. Army to "deal with" al-Sadr was just another of his blunders.

Perhaps I am being too subtle here. To put it bluntly, we should have killed al-Sadr when we had the chance. Now we have to live with his likely ascendancy on the political scene in Iraq. Long ago I warned that left unchecked, he could emerge as a -if not "the" - key power broker in Iraq. His trip to Syria was just another step in that journey.