May 2, 2012

Sadr's Second Attempt At Kingmaking

Muqtada al-Sadr meets with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish President Massud Barzani in Irbil.

The aftermath of the Bush administration's surge in Iraq left American observers with numerous COIN lessons and misconceptions to sort through. Among the general falsities, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had been put down and left for half-dead following a massive operation against his militia. Basra fell out of his control at the end of March 2008 and Iraqi forces raided the Baghdad enclave of Sadr City soon afterward, with both operations ending in a ceasefire ordered by al-Sadr. The Mahdi army was "disbanded" in August and the cleric relocated to Iran to accelerate his religious studies. 

U.S. military officials seized on Iraq's semi-independent gains as a notable sign of progress, but they knew (and feared) that al-Sadr would remain a force in Iraq's sphere of influence. Deriving political power from religious affiliation, public services and well-trained guerrillas, al-Sadr's "self-defense" militia completed its metamorphosis into a Hezbollah clone when his political party captured 39 parliamentary seats in March 2010. This victory allowed his military network to pressure U.S. troops out of the country without employing an abundance of force. Although his Promised Day Brigade threatened new attacks on U.S. troops if they didn't commit to a December 2011 exit, al-Sadr's leverage on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki played a more strategic role in upholding the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). 

The "fall" of Basra and al-Sadr City (still firmly under his control) marked the beginning of an upswing in al-Sadr's trajectory - the point that he wisely chose political power over military might. In doing so he kept both, and the 38-year old cleric is steadily positioning himself for a 21st century Iraq. 

President Jalal Talabani's office created the scene for al-Sadr's new power play over the weekend. Building on an ever-increasing wave of resentment against al-Maliki's style of governance, the premier's opponents arrayed in a show of force to push Iraq's political showdown closer to a resolution. Jalabani and al-Sadr were joined by Iraqiya chief Iyad Allawi, Sunni parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Massud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdistan region. All parties have met resistance under al-Maliki's rule and, if they can formulate the correct power equation, possess the combined strength to roll back his authority. This level of coordination indicates that their recent information campaign is no coincidence - after "dictatorship, "marginalization" is the next buzzword on their list. 

"I have said it many times: the policy of exclusion and the policy of marginalization must end in Iraq," al-Sadr said. 

Similar language has been employed in recent days by other Iraqi officials. Speaking to the Associated Press before Irbil's summit, Barzani rejected al-Maliki's claim that the Kurds seek independence and warned that Iraq's unity is currently threatened by "dictatorship and authoritarian rule." From the Kurds' point of view, only al-Maliki's consolidation of power will drive them to consider seceding from the rest of the country. Rogue Vice President Tariq Hashimi also continued his individual crusade against al-Maliki and allegations of funding a Sunni death squad. Hashimi's remarks can easily be attributed to the charges he's facing, but he speaks no differently than the opposition's heavyweights: "Unfortunately Maliki is becoming the core of the problem." 

"If Maliki insists on his unacceptable marginalization policy and if he continues power consolidation which is no way acceptable, then definitely the majority of political entities is going to go for a vote of confidence." 

Intent on boosting his political capital and downsizing al-Maliki's power, al-Sadr has stepped into Baghdad's current gridlock with an "18-point plan" to implement 2010’s Irbil Agreement. Finalized after eight months of political wrestling, the agreement allowed al-Maliki to begin his second term as Prime Minister and eventually escape his obligations; the Interior Ministry remains under his control and Allawi never received his post atop a new security council. al-Sadr's plan also calls for good relations with Iraq's neighbors and the national distribution of wealth acquired from Iraqi oil exports. Yet the cleric stopped short of backing a new prime minister or another election, with his secretary general Dhia al-Assadi revealing only that, “Moqtada al-Sadr discussed a number of issues during his visit to the Kurdistan region, among them not renewing (the mandate of) Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.” 

al-Maliki's opponents wish to avoid another messy election as the country attempts to right itself in the wake of America's exit. They anticipate bearing responsibility for any chaos that would result from this scenario and prefer to back al-Maliki down through superior numbers, splitting the fruits of their labor. The upshot to external observers is that Baghdad's political warfare continues to pump out COIN lessons, notably "don't support an authoritarian figure" and "don't grow complacent following a military withdrawal." Having traveled to Washington at the invitation of Vice President Joe Biden, Barzani told the AFP that Iraqis expect more diplomatic support from America and questioned Washington's handling of al-Maliki. Unfortunately the White House has treated this sentiment with casual obliviousness. 

During the latest progress report on Afghanistan, one senior official assured reporters, "If you back and look at the strategic framework agreement with the Iraqis, again, it envisioned a broad-based partnership. And frankly, that's the agreement we have with the Iraqis and that's the basis of our relationship with Iraq today, as we've ended the war." 

 In addition to sponsoring a national reconciliation conference, the administration has repeatedly "reiterated support for a federal, democratic, pluralistic, united Iraq" since President Barack Obama fueled Baghdad's crisis in December 2011. However the conference fell through in April and the White House stubbornly remains in al-Maliki's corner, leading Barzani to remark, "Certainly, we have reservations about their policy and their attitude... We cannot sit and do nothing or try nothing to remedy the situation." 

Unless America wants its "enemies" to swoop in and play hero.

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