The terms and timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are as much a matter of politics in Baghdad as they are in Washington. As the Iraqi cabinet prepares for Sunday's discussion of the vexing draft of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which provides a legal basis for U.S. military operations in Iraq after Dec. 31, firebrand Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Friday threw down the gauntlet: he threatened to resume attacks against U.S. troops if they don't leave Iraq "without retaining bases or signing agreements." Al-Sadr's unilateral cease-fire, declared more than a year ago, has been generally acknowledged as a key factor in tamping down violence in Iraq over the period, but it remains unclear whether his Mahdi Army militia has the means to make good on his threat.
"I repeat my demand that the occupier leave the land of our beloved Iraq unconditionally, without retaining bases or signing agreements," al-Sadr said in a statement released by his office in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf. "If they remain, I will support the resistance ... as long as their weapons are directed exclusively against the occupier." (See pictures of Iraq's revival.)
Fighting words, but the disarray in al-Sadr's militia at the time he announced his truce, and the fact that it has frozen its activities for more than a year, has raised questions about whether he is able to launch a new offensive. During the summer, the radical cleric, who is currently believed to be in Iran, announced that he planned to turn his fighting forces (which had numbered some 60,000 men) into a social and religious movement akin to the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hizballah, which functions as a political, social and religious organization even as it maintains a disciplined and highly trained militia. Al-Sadr also said that he would retain a small combat cadre of loyalists. But his move may have had more to do with self-preservation and the possibility that he may have lost control of many elements that fought in his name. In Friday's statement he called on breakaway groups from his militia to rejoin it.
In August, the black-turbaned cleric offered to dismantle his militia if the bilateral security agreement between Baghdad and Washington provided for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The latest draft of the SOFA says that U.S. troops would remain in Iraq until the end of 2011. Washington, at Iraq's insistence, has also dropped language suggesting that U.S. troops could remain behind for training. Still, even though the agreement may be moving toward accommodating the very demands that al-Sadr has been making, the cleric has seen fit to raise the stakes. His motivation may be political. Although al-Sadr's movement is not directly contesting the provincial elections slated for Jan. 31, his supporters could sway the outcome in the Shi'ite south. Opinion polls routinely find an overwhelming majority of Iraqis opposed to a continued U.S. presence in the country, which is why few Iraqi politicians have expressed any enthusiasm for the security agreement. Al-Sadr may be grandstanding to raise the political heat on his Shi'ite rivals in the ruling coalition the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party.
Despite al-Sadr's saber-rattling, few Iraqis expect U.S. troops to go home anytime soon at least not before the three-year deadline set in the draft SOFA, or perhaps the 16 months promised on the campaign trail by President-elect Barack Obama. Still, al-Sadr and other Iraqi politicians are shaping their own stances in the hope of making maximum gains out of the Americans' eventual departure. The radical cleric has called for mass public demonstrations against the security accord next Friday. The turnout at those gatherings could be a telling indicator of whether al-Sadr still has the support on the ground to back up his threats.