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Moqtada Al-Sadr Answers the Wall Street Journal

March 25, 2008

In another unfortunate case of premature Iraq elation, the Wall Street Journal last week celebrated the decline and fall of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Al-Sadr. Echoing the "bring 'em on" taunt of their former boss, ex-Bush advisers Dan Senor and Roman Martinez triumphantly asked "Whatever Happened to Moqtada?" But as the renewed turmoil in Baghdad and violent chaos in Basra suggest, the answer may be, "he's back."
The cease fire declared last summer by Sadr's Mahdi army militia has been one of four crucial ingredients driving the drop in violence in Iraq, especially against American troops. (The U.S. troop escalation itself, improved counterinsurgency tactics and the American funding of Sunni "awakening councils" to battle Al Qaeda are the others.)
Senor, Paul Bremer's one-time Baghdad spokesman turned Fox News contributor (and husband of CNN's Campbell Brown), gloated over the diminishing fortunes of Sadr, the man who "came very close to establishing a state within a state inside Iraq, much like Hezbollah had done in Lebanon."

Moqtada al-Sadr -- the radical cleric dubbed "The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq" by a Newsweek cover story in December 2006 -- has just unilaterally extended the ceasefire he imposed on his Mahdi Army militia last summer. And on the eve of the Iraq War's fifth anniversary, Sadr also issued a somber but dramatic statement. He not only declared that he had failed to transform Iraq, but also lamented the new debates and divisions within his own movement. Explaining his marginalization, Sadr all but confessed his growing isolation: "One hand cannot clap alone."

Perhaps, but it can still make a fist.
As events in Iraq this week demonstrate, that's the clear reality on the ground. In Baghdad, Mahdi army militiamen forced shops to close in many neighborhoods as part of a nationwide "civil disobedience campaign" against efforts by U.S. and Iraqi government units to crack down on "rogue" Sadrist elements backed by Iran. Sadr's forces engaged in sporadic gunfire in Baghdad and Kut, and shelled U.S facilities and Prime Minister Maliki's compound in the Green Zone. Still, Nassar al-Rubaie, head of the Sadr party in parliament contended, "This does not mean the ceasefire is over. Such a decision is for Moqtada al-Sadr to take."
But it is in the southern city of Basra, handed over by British troops to Iraqi authorities last fall, where the situation is rapidly spinning out of control. 22 people were killed and 58 wounded in fighting between Sadr's men and forces aligned with the leading Shiite bloc -in the government, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. As MSNBC reported, the unilateral Sadr cease fire now looks increasingly shaky:

With tensions rising, al-Sadr's headquarters in Najaf ordered field commanders with his Mahdi Army militia to go on high alert and prepare "to strike the occupiers" and their Iraqi allies, a militia officer said.

The growing chaos in Basra and building challenge from al-Sadr threatens the very success of the U.S. surge to date. As the New York Times reported, President Bush is all but certain to pause the drawdown of American forces in Iraqi, likely maintaining at 140,000 the troop level requested by General David Petraeus through the end of 2008. Meanwhile, the United States has asked the Brown government in London to lead a "British surge" back into Basra and southern Iraq. While one anonymous British source told the Sunday Mirror "we do not have enough troops for a surge ourselves," an unnamed senior American military source described the stakes for the U.S.:

"If they do not have enough troops, then they will be offered US Marines to help out.
"The feeling is that if southern Iraq is hugely unstable, it will affect the success of the surge in the north and destabilize the whole country."

Which is precisely the concern raised by the McClatchy papers on Monday. Noting the growing Shiite conflict fueled by Sadr, stepped-up attacks on military and civilian targets and rising U.S and Iraqi casualties, McClatchy asked, "Is 'Success' of U.S. Surge About to Unravel?"
On the fifth anniversary of the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, Americans can only hope the answer is no. As for Senor and Martinez, critical cogs in the Coalition Provisional Authority that utterly failed to anticipate the rise of Moqtada Al-Sadr, they like their boss were too quick to pop the champagne corks and pronounce "mission accomplished." (As even they feebly acknowledged, "So while the progress made against Sadr has been remarkable, it may also be fragile.") As for Sadr himself, rumors of his demise were apparently premature.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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