Sadr's Freeze Greeted With Skepticism

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Members of the Mahdi Army in Najaf.

On Monday the Pentagon, in its quarterly Iraq report, noted the obvious: Iraqi politicians' "indecisiveness and inaction" are sapping what little credibility the government has left. But the refrain in Washington that Iraqis just need to try harder is belied by Iraq's intractable realities. In Baghdad's neighborhoods it's not clear that Iraq's nominal leaders — even some of the most vociferous and provocative among them — can control the violence and foster national reconciliation even if they wanted to.

In late August Shi'ite politician and militia chieftain Moqtada al-Sadr announced a "freeze" of his Mahdi Army militia. American officials hailed it as a rare act of statesmanship from the volatile cleric. But in Ghazaliyah, on the Sunni-Shi'a faultline in western Baghdad, American officers are dubious that the announcement will make much difference. "There's more than one militia in my northern [area of operations]," said Lieutenant-Colonel James Nickolas, who commands U.S. forces in Ghazaliyah. He conceded that, in the wake of the Sadr announcement, there had been a decrease in activity by rank-and-file members of the Mahdi Army. But Nickolas said it's uncertain if the most dangerous elements of the militia — the so-called "special groups" that American officials say receive money, weapons and training from Iran — still take direction from Sadr.

Maj. Tom Moore, the battalion's intelligence officer, said it was not even certain that Sadr controlled any of the militants in Ghazaliyah who fight under the banner of the Mahdi Army. "We haven't seen a whole lot happen yet," Moore said. "I personally think that most of them are going to ignore it." By "them," Moore is including many members of Ghazaliyah's local police force. He said the organization is so overrun by the Mahdi Army that honest cops are intimidated into going along with the militia. "Even the ones who aren't involved are so scared," Moore said. They have to work with these people and live with them — what are you going to do?"

The militias' grip on local security forces and Iraqi communities will not be loosened by pronouncements from Sadr, or by deals made behind concrete barriers and razor wire in Baghdad's Green Zone. In neighborhoods like Ghazaliyah, violence has raged for years despite constant talk of national reconciliation and the evils of militia violence. Sadr's much-praised announcement struck Moore as business as usual. "I've heard stuff like this before," he said of the freeze. "It really doesn't matter a whole lot to me what [Sadr] says."

The same could be said of the Sadrist political block's announcement last weekend that it would withdraw from the governing coalition of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The announcement was neither surprising (the Sadrists have been boycotting the cabinet for months) nor the sign of a coming political upheaval (Sadrist spokesmen were at pains to point out that they were not withdrawing their support for Maliki). Rather, it was yet another bit of political maneuvering at the highest levels of the Iraqi government that will have little impact on the carnage in the streets.