Middle East


Al-Sadr: Going for Broke?

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stands in front of a portrait of his slain father on May 12, 2004. (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP-Getty Images)

A massive US-Iraqi military operation has been launched on Aug 12, and the battleground is the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where al-Sadr is ensconced in the Imam Ali Shrine with his fighters.

The offensive however will not result in a political weakening of the renegade leader. It will alter the nature of his movement — a high number of casualties would energize the public support, which al-Sadr could then galvanize in the form of protests as an alternative to an armed insurrection.

The US and Iraqi military forces launched a major counterinsurgency operation on Aug 12, against the militiamen of the radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, in An Najaf and Al Kut. The operation involving thousands of US and Iraqi troops, tanks and gunship helicopters is designed to obliterate the military wing of al-Sadr's movement. The offensive does not seem to seek to harm al-Sadr, only to take away his army and attempt to undercut his position as a major Shiite political force.

But the goal of cutting al-Sadr down to size will not be achieved, because both Washington and Baghdad misunderstand the nature of al-Sadr's political power. Destroying his militia, a ragtag band of untrained and inexperienced young men, will not automatically weaken al-Sadr's political position.

This is because the Mehdi Army is not the source of al-Sadr's strength; it is a by-product of his popular standing within the Shiite masses of Iraq. Sources close to the Shiite tribes in southern Iraq suggest the Mehdi Army might face a battle of attrition, but that there are untold numbers who are willing to step in when others fall.

Given the asymmetry of military capabilities, there is no doubt that when the dust settles in An Najaf, the Mehdi Army might have been put out of commission. al-Sadr is all too cognizant of the possibility of such a military defeat, but is not backing off and appears confident that the core of his support will remain intact.

The United States and the Iraqi opponents of al-Sadr understand, that it is too risky to attempt to destroy al-Sadr, because of the threat of a mass rising. If they think the destruction of the Mehdi Army will neutralize the young radical leader, they seem to be missing the point.

Though al-Sadr without a militia will be unable to threaten oil fields, lock down the US military in its bases, disrupt supply lines and conduct other activities, he will not simply disappear.

In fact, the rapidly increasing number of casualties that the Mehdi Army is sustaining already is translating into mass anger at the United States and the Interim Iraqi Government of Iyad Allawi, which al-Sadr will be able to leverage to his political advantage.

In essence, al-Sadr's movement cannot be weakened, because it is less a military movement than a political and a popular phenomenon.

Even his death would likely have undesirable consequences for Washington and Baghdad. Some of the ramifications of the ongoing military assault could be as follows:

  • A major setback for Washington's larger political goals; the credibility of the Allawi government as an independent Iraqi government has been decisively undermined. While much of the Iraqi public was willing to give the interim leader a chance, he will now be seen as nothing more than an American puppet or, worse, an American agent.
  • Serious and potentially fatal strains have been created even within the government. Its Shiite vice president, Ibrahim Jaafari, who is also leader of the Dawa Party and generally regarded as Iraq's most popular political figure, denounced the presence of US forces in Najaf, while the deputy governor of Najaf province resigned to protest "all the US terrorist operations that they are doing against this holy city."
  • The hardline Sunni Board of Muslim Clergy issued a fatwa (decree) that no Muslims should cooperate with US forces in killing other Muslims, in a move that recalled events in April when Shiite rallied to support Sunni fighters besieged by US Marines in Fallujah.
  • US support for Allawi has clearly stoked fears, particularly among the Shiite and Kurdish communities, of a Ba'athist revival and the past week's offensive against the Mehdi Army has accentuated them.
  • A long-term, low-intensity Shitte insurgency in the south, similar to what have seen in the so-called Sunni triangle, might simmer for a long period; thus further destabilizing the Iraqi state.
  • It could also precipitate more instances of "blowback" on US interests throughout the world. Because 120 million Shiite Muslims are located across the globe — especially in Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, India and Pakistan and any damage to Najaf's holy sites could help stir violent hatred toward the United States among this religious group.

The US might win this particular battle, but an ultimate victory in the war will elude it.