The Shia story was different. There have been two broad tendencies in Iraq's Shia politics: the pro-Iranian camp and the nationalist camp. Iraq has two great traditional pro-Iranian Shia parties—Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (the former SCIRI). They fought Saddam from exile and spent the wilderness years in Iran. Opposed to these two is the al-Sadr movement, which—under Muqtada al-Sadr's father Mohammad Sadeq, killed by Saddam's men in 1999—fought Saddam from inside Iraq and kept its sense of anti-Iranian Iraqi nationalism intact. Of these tendencies, only al-Sadr's rose up to fight the Americans.
Muqtada al-Sadr's announcement of a unilateral six-month ceasefire on 29th August was significant, but not for the reasons most apparent. Al-Sadr actually stopped fighting the Americans three years ago. He rose up against them twice in 2004, but since the end of his second uprising, his Mahdi army has focused its violence on Wahhabis and Baathists, with frequent clashes against other Shia factions. Al-Sadr's movement is splintered and immature. Its less legitimate fringes have been active in sectarian cleansing. Many who do have ties to his movement frequently work beyond his control. Some of these tendencies continue to direct violence against the coalition, but this is negligible compared to the force of a true Sadrist resistance, as anyone who was in Najaf or Sadr City in 2004 will attest. Since this spring, US troops have been comfortably based in Sadr City—the giant Baghdad slum that is the power base of the Sadrists.
In mid-September, the al-Sadr parliamentary bloc withdrew its support for Maliki's government, without providing a public explanation. This repeats a pattern. In April, al-Sadr withdrew his ministers from the cabinet in ostensible protest at the remaining presence of the coalition forces; while in December 2006 he did the same thing in protest at a meeting between Maliki and Bush. Each of these exercises was greeted as Iraq's latest cataclysm, but, in the latter two cases, a month or two later al-Sadr's chiefs were quietly back fronting the ministries that their minions had continued to run in their absence. The point is that having al-Sadr playing political games rather than military ones is the most positive thing that could be happening in Iraq.
Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's most successful, popular and important politician, has underwritten Iraq's progress towards legitimate politics since late 2004. His sense of Iraqi nationalism will never allow Iranian dominance; his fraternal stance towards the peaceful Sunni tendencies, and the sheer size and passion of his movement, make his support for the project of reconstruction and pluralism in Iraq the most important political factor in the country. Prospect readers will not be surprised to read that al-Sadr is on the right side of the key issues, and that this is helping Iraq get over its transition from 35 years of Baathism's murderous apartheid (see "Iraq's rebel democrats," Prospect June 2005). Since 2004 I have pointed out that al-Sadr, as leader of the country's largest popular movement, has more to win from a functioning electoral politics than from fighting the Americans who guaranteed the polls that liberated his people, or from fighting the Iraqi government of which he is himself the joint largest part.
As we have noted, the real al-Sadr ceasefire began three years ago. But by saying publicly, again, that his men are putting down their guns, al-Sadr is declaring in the most unequivocal way that the violence in Iraq is not in his name.
Iranian-made rockets will continue to kill British and American soldiers. Saudi Wahhabis will continue to blow up marketplaces, employment queues and Shia mosques when they can. Iraqi criminals will continue to bully their neighbourhoods into homogeneities that will give the strongest more leverage, although even this tide is turning in most places where Petraeus's surge has reached. Bodies will continue to pile up in the ditches of Doura and east Baghdad as the country goes through the final spasm of the reckoning that was always going to attend the end of 35 years of brutal Sunni rule.
But in terms of national politics, there is nothing left to fight for. The only Iraqis still fighting for more than local factional advantage and criminal dominance are the irrational actors: the Sunni fundamentalists, who number but a thousand or two men-at-arms, most of them not Iraqi. Like other Wahhabi attacks on Iraq in 1805 and 1925, the current one will end soon enough. As the maturing Iraqi state gets control of its borders, and as Iraq's Sunni neighbours recognise that a Shia Iraq must be dealt with, the flow of foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq from Syria will start to dry up. Even today, for all the bloodshed it causes, the violence hardly affects the bigger picture: suicide bombs go off, dozens of innocents die, the Shias mostly hold back and Iraq's tough life goes on.
I have never heard of Bartle Bull or Prospect magazine before so this kind of caught me by surprise. Especially when I read that al-Sadr is actually not the pro-Iranian figure in the Shia coalition. I don't really know what to make of this it contradicts almost everything else I have read on al-Sadr.
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Iraq, War, al-Sadr, Iran