Underestimating al-Sadr — Again

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Ali Abu Shish / Reuters

Mehdi Army members escort Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during his visit to the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, Feb. 27, 2006.

The six-month cease-fire that Moqtada al-Sadr called in August 2007 is set to expire at the end of February. Observers believe the freeze in operations of his Mahdi Army is a major reason for the recent security successes in Iraq; and most expected it to be extended. But recently the Sadr camp has said that it might end the cease-fire. On January 18, a spokesman for Sadr in the religious capital of Najaf issued a statement warning that "the rationale for the decision to extend the freeze of the Mahdi Army is beginning to wear thin." Is the U.S. alarmed? It is not — and that is alarming.

Though American officials recognize the importance of Sadr's inactivity, they are now saying that the cleric's political influence in Iraq has diminished. On Thursday, the senior diplomat overseeing U.S. policy in Iraq, David Satterfield, told a roomful of foreign policy experts at the Middle East Institute that the 34-year-old cleric was a "deeply troubled young man" who is spending most of his time in Iran watching events in Iraq move "beyond his ability to influence." Those are strong words about the surviving scion of a revered religious family who has proven time and again to be a thorn in the side of U.S. efforts in Iraq.

Satterfield said Sadr's political influence has waned since November 2006, when the cleric "made a political gamble and lost." That was when Sadr withdrew his party's ministers from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet after Maliki refused to set a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. When the government did not collapse, Satterfield argued, the limits of al-Sadr's political power were exposed. That's when Maliki no longer felt the need to protect his biggest constituent in Parliament and gave U.S. forces the green light to enter Sadr City, the cleric's popular stronghold in north Baghdad. Ever since, Iraqi and U.S. units have been arresting commanders of the militia who have not gone underground.

Satterfield is underrating the Mahdi Army's boss. I met Moqtada al-Sadr in November 2003 at his office down a narrow alleyway in Najaf. We sat on pillows on the floor and he answered my questions with short, perfunctory statements. Barely 30, he had a round face, broad shoulders and a habit of glaring at guests beneath his thick, black eyebrows. He came across as menacing yet dull. At the time, he was holding massive Friday-afternoon prayer rallies that he populated with poor workers bused in from the slums of Sadr City in Baghdad 100 miles to the north. I was hearing rumors that his followers were kidnapping and beating religious students who criticized him. The Coalition Provisional Authority was dithering about whether to arrest him on charges of killing a rival cleric the April before. To most observers, including myself, he seemed to be a thug with a lot of bluster and little substance.

Then, in 2004, he launched two uprisings against the U.S. occupation. He then outmaneuvered his Shi'ite rivals in the political process and became the kingmaker who installed Maliki as Prime Minister. His militia was instrumental in carrying out thousands of reprisal killings after the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, bringing Iraq to the verge of all-out civil war.

He was underestimated. And now it seems, the folks that matter in the Administration are making the same mistake again — pointing out his shortcomings and his inability to influence events. "That's a very optimistic way of looking at it," says Vali Nasr, author of The Shi'a Revival, of Satterfield's comments, "Moqtada al-Sadr still commands the largest social and political movement in southern Iraq." Nasr and others believe the Mahdi Army's leader is biding his time out to develop stronger religious credentials and strengthen his control over a militia. Sadr's game plan, it appears, extends far beyond the next year or two. "The game in Iraq is not over," says Nasr. "He has been beefing up his strength."

In fact, the cease-fire has allowed Sadr to purge his militia forces, some of which had been hijacked by criminal gangs running lucrative kidnap-for-ransom schemes. The indiscriminate thuggery had damaged Sadr's reputation among average Iraqis. So had the perception that Sadr was an Iranian stooge. Some of elements of the Madhi Army had morphed into groups that answered directly to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and were operating beyond Sadrís control. He has stood by as those elements have been arrested by U.S. forces.

The U.S. believes Sadr has been spending most of his time in Iran. So what's he up to? He is likely in the Shi'ite religious center of Qom studying to achieve the higher rank of ayatollah, a position that would allow him to issue fatwas, and garner more respect from the Shi'ite establishment. Such a rank usually requires two decades of study, but Sadr, say aides, wants to complete it within two years. In that time, he'll receive the religious equivalent of a mail-order diploma. "No Shi'ite Iraqi really believes he is going to study or that he could complete his studies to become a respectable cleric in a year," says Nasr, "but he can do enough to get the political cover he needs."

It's what he does when he comes back on the scene that should have U.S. officials worried. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who closely follows developments in Iraq, calls Sadr's decision to rein in his forces a "pretty huge" part of the recent progress. But he isn't convinced that the young cleric has graciously taken himself out of the game without a long-term strategic agenda in mind. O'Hanlon doesn't see Sadr as a weaker player, "but a person who is deciding if he wants to play politics or go back to the battlefield," says O'Hanlon. "I wish I could think Sadr has taken this position out of weakness."