Muqtada al-Sadr’s Militia parading through Basra in an undated photo.
U.S. is propping up unpopular regime; Sadr has support because of his platform
One of the ironies of the reporting out of Iraq is the ubiquitous characterization of Muqtada al-Sadr as a “renegade,” “radical” or “militant” cleric, despite the fact that he is the only leader of significance in the country who has ordered his followers to stand down. His ostensible militancy appears to arise primarily from his opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
He has certainly been willing to use violence in the past, but the “firebrand” label belies the fact that Sadr is arguably the most popular leader among a large section of the Iraqi population and that he has forcefully rejected sectarian conflict and sought to bring together representatives of Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian groups in an effort to create real national reconciliation — a process that the highly sectarian Maliki regime has failed to accomplish.
It’s vitally important to understand that Sadr’s popularity and legitimacy is a result of his having a platform that’s favored by an overwhelming majority of Iraqis. Most Iraqis:
- Favor a strong central government free of the influence of militias.
- Oppose, by a 2-1 margin, the privatization of Iraq’s energy sector — a “benchmark towards progress according to the Bush administration.
- Favor a U.S. withdrawal on a short timeline (PDF) (most believe the United States plans to build permanent bases — both are issues about which the Sadrists have been vocal.
- Oppose al Qaeda and the ideology of Osama Bin Laden and, to a lesser degree, Iranian influence on Iraq’s internal affairs.
With the exception of their opposition to Al Qaeda, the five major separatist parties — Sunni, Shia and Kurdish — that make up Maliki’s governing coalition are on the deeply unpopular side of these issues. A poll conducted last year found that 65 percent of Iraqis think the Iraqi government is doing a poor job, and Maliki himself has a Bush-like 66 percent disapproval rate.
As in Vietnam, the United States is backing an unpopular and decidedly undemocratic government in Iraq, and that simple fact explains much of the violent resistance that’s going on in Iraq today. MORE
TIME: It is difficult to separate real plans from bluster, but militants opposed to the government’s Basra operation have already struck a high-profile blow in Baghdad. Tahsin al-Sheikhli, the government’s spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, was kidnapped from his home on Thursday. The al-Sharqia television station on Saturday aired an audio tape in which Sheikhli said that his fate depended on the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Basra and the opening of negotiations with Sadr’s movement. MORE
REUTERS: The fighting has spread through southern regions, drew the U.S. forces and led to protests in Baghdad by followers of Sadr, who say Maliki is using force to weaken his political rivals. Sadr pulled out of Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government last year when the prime minister refused to set a deadline for U.S. troop withdrawals. But Sadr also ordered his Mehdi Army to observe a ceasefire which has been central to a recent fall in violence. “The key question now is what the United States is going to do,” said Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group think tank. “If it allows (the crackdown) to go forward the ceasefire will unravel and the U.S. will face the Sadr movement in its full power.” “This will be bad for both sides. Sadr will lose men and the United States will lose the gains of the surge.” MORE
RELATED: Eric Martin takes me to task over my assertion, based on the Washington Post coverage, that the U.S. government didn’t know this was coming. He has a point. For full disclosure I should have pointed out that last week Cheney met with ISCI’s leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. There has been a great deal of speculation that in exchange for letting the provincial elections law pass through the Presidency Council, Cheney agreed to give ISCI the go ahead to go to town on JAM in Basra. It has also been widely reported that a number of Iraqi Generals were talking about this operation a week ago. Both good points that throw into question whether the Bush Administration saw this coming. Still, the reason I don’t buy this theory is that the timing makes no sense whatsoever from a domestic political perspective. If there was a quid pro quo, the Bush Administration would have asked for a waiting period until after the Petraeus Crocker testimony. Why go with such a high risk operation a week before the progress report to Congress? Makes no sense. This Administration is pretty incompetent about a lot of things, but for the most part they seem to understand political timing. At the end, Eric argues that given the Administration’s not so stellar record with the truth, we shouldn’t take them at their word. Fair enough. But I’d also argue that given the Administration’s long history of incompetence on Iraq, it’s quite possible and in fact likely, that they just completely missed this. MORE
RAW FOOTAGE: Basra Streetfighting Men