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President Sadr: America’s Last, Best Hope?

Could the only remaining hope for a peaceful Iraq lie with Moqtada Sadr?

August 13, 2007

Could the only remaining hope for a peaceful Iraq lie with Moqtada Sadr?

It is an article of faith among most U.S. war planners and pundits that Moqtada Sadr is bad news. For example, his followers were responsible for 20 U.S. casualties in a single action earlier in 2007.

And Sadr led a violent uprising of his Mahdi Army in April 2004 at Najaf’s Imam Ali Shrine in defiance of U.S. forces and the Iraqi interim government.

Given the United States’ track record in Iraq to date, however, it is probably a good idea to reexamine any U.S. article of faith about Iraq. Moreover, there are good reasons to think Sadr could play a crucial role in resolving Iraq’s civil war.

Pudgy, morose and self-important, Moqtada Sadr seems an unlikely hero to unify any part of the fragmented and tortured country. And yet, he has a credential few Iraqi leaders share — Saddam killed his father, a deeply respected cleric.

Sadr has not merely inherited an opportunity through a family tragedy, though. He is the only Shia leader who has consistently called for a unified, multi-sectarian Iraq — as opposed to a Shia state or an Iraq under Shia control.

After months of speculation about his whereabouts, for example, he resurfaced in Najaf on May 25, 2007 to reiterate his call for Sunni and Shia unity. In a march the following month to the repeatedly bombed Askariyah mosque north of Baghdad, he called not only for mutual respect among Muslims — but also between Muslims and Christians.

In fact, Sadr’s rivalry with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim — head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a formerly ex-patriot Shia group with ties to Iran — stems partly from Hakim’s support for a separate Shia state. In sharp contrast, Sadr wants an Iraq for all Iraqis — a key goal of U.S. policy.

Even Britain’s Chatham House — a think tank far more comfortable with former ex-patriots like Hakim than the angry men who, like Sadr, stayed in Iraq — is starting to see the Mahdi leader as a necessary part of any solution.

“…Sadr has substantial popular support and therefore political legitimacy,” it writes in a recent briefing paper, adding that he “is an Iraqi nationalist, albeit of a distinctly Shia hue, and his relationship with Iran has been notably awkward.”

Even if prudence cautions all of us to rethink our view of Sadr and the possibility that he could play a constructive or even central role in a political solution for Iraq, though, a gaping question remains about his true ambitions. The trouble is that it is hard to tell what he wants from his speeches, which mostly reflect the political necessities that shaped them.

Given the opacity and predictability of Sadr’s speeches, therefore, we must resort to speculation to know his mind. But speculation may be a useful guide in Sadr’s case. After all, his careful insistence on steering a moderate course, despite all the fiery rhetoric, suggests a very rational thinker. Let’s imagine what he might say about the risks of Iraq’s major options today:

According to Muhammad, peace be upon him, the first responsibility of the ulama is to their people. So we must ask — what do the people of Iraq want? Each group wants something a little different. We must consider them in turn.

My father’s two million Shia followers in Sadr City — Baghdad’s beating heart — lead lives far different from the traditional Shia in the south of the country. Their problems are those of crowded city-dwellers. They live in what American soldiers, who for some strange reason speak Spanish, call the barrio.

These are my people and I know what they want. It’s not sharia, or Islamic law, or even a Shia state, like the Shia outside of Baghdad in the south of the country. What they want is to be secure.

They have always been poor — and once they just wanted to be rich. But since the Americans came and the Sunni began to attack them out of fear of Shia everywhere, they realized security is more important than wealth. For them, the most important thing is to stop the Sunni from being afraid of them.

This brings us to what Saddam’s fellow Sunni want, which is not to have to be afraid of the Shia. But the Sunni have always been richer, so their needs are more complicated.

The Sunni fear Shia everywhere because there are five million Sunni and 15 million Shia. The Shia suffered terribly under Saddam — and although the vast majority of Sunni are blameless, there will always be a few Shia who want revenge against them all.

So the Sunni strike out preemptively at the only Shia they can easily reach, namely the Shia in Sadr City. Worse, the Sunni fear a sectarian partition of Iraq, which would leave Iraq’s oil fields in the hands of others and exclude them from most of Baghdad.

In the north of the country, the five million Kurds of Iraq want to be left alone. They play along with American dreams of Iraqi unity — but don’t believe it will work.

It doesn’t matter much to the Kurds what formal arrangements other Iraqis make, because their focus is elsewhere — on the 14 million of their countrymen trying to live under Turkish rule beyond the border. So the Kurds of Iraq want to be strong and independent — and are ready to support the Kurds of Turkey.

And that leaves the other half of Iraq — the 12 or 13 million Shia outside of Baghdad who live mostly in the south. They live in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, where I preach, and in the port of Basra. But mostly, they farm in the waters of the great rivers.

Freedom from Saddam was the greatest need of the Shia of the south — and, thank God, they have it. Beyond that freedom, they crave tradition and want to live under Islamic law. They want the Koran to be their constitution.

This is why Iraq is no longer stable as a whole. Saddam’s fellow Sunni know they count for just a fifth of the country. So they fear the other four in five Iraqis would be happy to push them into the desert and let them bake for Saddam’s sins.

The Sunnis cannot take a chance on others’ goodwill. As a result, some kind of partition of my country may sadly be inevitable. But a sectarian partition will solve nothing.

Imagine what such a partition would do. The Shia would drive the Sunni out of Baghdad. Deprived of oil and commercial resources, the Sunni would become a vast guerilla camp beyond the limits of the Shia state.

The Sunni would smolder with resentment toward it — and give the Shia no peace. The blood would never stop flowing in our lifetimes. Is there a third solution?

Perhaps it is time for my followers in Baghdad to separate from the Shia in the south. They may find more security on their own than in a unified state where they are part of a fruitless majority.

The Sunni do not strike the Shia of Sadr City because of who they are, but because there are so many millions of Shia beyond Baghdad. The Sunni will never give Sadr City peace — as long as it represents the tip of a long Shia knife pointed at the Sunni heartland.

So let us separate the Shia of the south from the rest of Iraq. The Shia in the south would be content — they could live under sharia as they wish.

And the state to the north would still include much of the beauty and strength of Iraq — almost all of the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds, the Shia of Sadr City, and roughly another million Shia near Baghdad.

So the northern state would be approximately 40% Sunni Arab, 40% Kurdish and 20% Shia. No group could dominate, and the Sunni would have the plurality they believe they need for protection.

Nor do I fear for my people in Sadr City. They would go from being part of a fruitless majority to being part of a minority. But they would be a powerful minority.

Neither Kurds nor Sunni could win an election without them. Like the religious parties of Israel, the Shia of Sadr City would probably always be in power. And perhaps, insh’allah, my role would be to lead and protect them.

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