How Sadr Plans to Ride Out the Surge

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Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks to his followers on Nov. 24, 2006 during a Friday prayer service in Kufa south of Baghdad, Iraq.

Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army seem to have decided that, for now, the best defense against the American troop surge is no defense. Rather than risk another major confrontation like the battles of 2004 in which they lost thousands of men, the military and political leadership of Sadr's movement is going out of its way to be conciliatory.

Following an American raid last month that netted one of Sadr's lieutenants, some Sadrists threatened to hold up the movement's reconciliation with the national government. Instead, Sadrist ministers who had been boycotting parliament to protest against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meeting with President Bush rejoined the government. And this week, the Sadrists even endorsed the deployment of additional U.S. troops to Baghdad and the new security plan. A local official in the Mehdi Army's Sadr City stronghold said that under the terms of a deal with U.S. forces, the Americans would be welcome in Sadr City.

But allowing the Americans to pass unchallenged through Sadr City is not the same thing as embracing the U.S. agenda for Iraq. It may simply make tactical sense to stand down the Mehdi Army temporarily, denying the U.S. military a target. Meanwhile the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi security forces, which include many Sadr sympathizers and actual members of his militia, continue their fight against Sunni insurgents.

U.S. officials have painted the surge as a temporary step, some hinting that it may last only a matter of months. That's not a long time in the outlook of an organization that must consider its position in Iraq in terms of decades. If political support for the U.S. presence in Iraq collapses, or if the military simply cannot sustain a meaningful increase in troop strength, the Mehdi Army will have won a victory without ever joining the battle.

Ironically, the Americans' greatest hope for success in defeating the Shi'ite militia may be the Sunni insurgency. Despite token attempts at national reconciliation, they are not part of the political process, do not negotiate meaningfully with the government, and are under no illusions about what a "troop surge" means for them. In recent weeks they've faced U.S. air strikes and Iraqi Army raids in downtown Baghdad. And the insurgents have continued to rain terror down on mostly Shi'ite civilian concentrations, in market places, universities and religious gatherings.

So, while Sadr may be able to cut deals with the Americans, Shi'ites in Baghdad and elsewhere face escalating terror attacks from the insurgency. If violence directed against Shi'ites demands a more public show of force by the Mehdi Army, it may be forced to break cover and risk becoming targets of U.S. firepower.

The more immediate concern for the surge strategy is not the maneuvers of militias commanders, but the fact that the loyalty of government security forces is dubious, at best. The Mehdi Army's most important stronghold may not, in fact, be Sadr City as such, but rather its legion of supporters inside government ministries, army units and police stations.