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Beyond Kingmaker: Moqtada al-Sadr and the Future of Iraq

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Posted on Oct 24, 2010
AP / Karim Kadim

A supporter holds up a poster of religious, political and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

By Scott Ritter

(Page 4)

While Sadr had served as an influential cleric in Baghdad during and after Saddam’s rule, his influence was limited to conventional political affairs, since he lacked the formal religious education necessary to issue fatwas, or religious edicts. Sadr has the benefit of learning from historical precedent in terms of how to pursue his religious training. When the Ayatollah Khomeini died in Iran, he chose as his successor Ali Khamenei, a Shiite cleric who lacked the formal religious training to legitimately serve as a Marja, or jurisprudent. As such, Khamenei’s role as “supreme jurisprudent” was significantly diminished, as was his viability as a political leader. Khamenei’s supporters rushed the Iranian leader through a crash course in Shiite theology, allowing Khamenei to assume the title of ayatollah, and with it the position of supreme jurisprudent. But many Shiite religious authorities do not recognize Khamenei’s position, and his effectiveness as a leader has suffered as a result.

Moqtada al-Sadr understands the importance of legitimacy when it comes to positioning himself as a religious authority capable of challenging Ali Sistani. The decision by Sadr to call for a “people’s referendum” following the inconclusive results of the March 2010 elections underscores the fact that he has embraced the “governance of the people” ideology of his father-in-law. As such, Sadr can afford to remain in Qom, deep in his studies, while the issues of governance are worked out by his “trustees,” in this case Ibrahim Jaafari and others. Sadr will continue to study in an effort to finish his father-in-law’s work, namely the matter of defining the role of the Marja in overseeing the state of religion in a government elected by the people. While normally the path to ayatollah rank is a long one, the fact that Sadr is working off a foundation of religious study inherited from his father-in-law will help to hasten the process. It also allows Sadr the flexibility to decide when he is ready to assume his role as a religious leader. Unlike political leaders, who are held hostage by events out of their control, Sadr alone will be able to pick the time of his emergence. There is little doubt that this emergence will be done in a manner and time that maximize the political benefit to Sadr. 

Unlike Moqtada al-Sadr, who has cultivated an image as being in union with the people of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki has sought to foster the image of a law-and-order Iraqi politician. Backed up by American military, political and financial resources, Maliki was able to cobble together the illusion of a functioning government presiding over a stable nation. But this was only an illusion—the U.S.-led surge did little to resolve the underlying causes of the insurgency in Iraq, and the Iraqi government was beset with internal sectarian squabbles and rampant corruption that made the normal functions of governance impossible. In the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq, the U.S. backed the formation of local Sunni militias, which, in exchange for a promise of greater political autonomy, agreed to assist the American military in the suppression of fundamentalist Islamic organizations such as Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). This empowerment of the Sunnis made the Shiite-dominated government of Maliki nervous, and the stability achieved by the U.S.-brokered security arrangement with the Sunnis began to unravel as Maliki demanded that the Sunni militias disband and security be turned over to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security services.

It is this estrangement between Maliki and the Sunni that created the political opportunity for the re-emergence of Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has allied with the disenfranchised Sunnis of Iraq. But both Maliki and Allawi are artificial constructs, neither deriving his position from the legitimate will of the Iraqi people. The reality is that the Iraqi democratic experiment, as manifested in the March 2010 elections, has failed. It is highly unlikely that a consensus-based unity government will be formed in the aftermath of the election, which saw no single party able to win enough seats to form a majority government.

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Maliki and Allawi are both not only byproducts of the failure of Iraqi governance in the post-Saddam era, but the leading architects of this failure. Given the imperfect nature of Iraqi electoral processes, neither Allawi nor Maliki can claim his leadership to be reflective of the true will of the Iraqi people, and their current status only underscores the fragile nature of Iraq’s imperfect democratic institutions. There is little likelihood of a viable Iraqi government emerging from the debacle of the March 2010 election. As Maliki and Allawi squared off over their battle for the office of prime minister, their respective coalitions began to fracture and dissolve. Already there has been a decided spike in the level of sectarian violence not only in Iraq overall, but more ominously in Baghdad itself. The Sunnis who supported Allawi are divorcing themselves from the political process, choosing instead to return to the path of insurgency, raising the specter of renewed sectarian fighting. Maliki’s reputation of being the law-and-order leader of Iraq is likewise being tarnished by the new violence.

The inability of the Iraqi security forces to bring this violence under control (and there is no reason to be optimistic that they will ever be able to do so) is placing tremendous pressure on the United States. The deadline set by the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the United States and Iraq in December 2008 (during the Bush administration) requires all U.S. military forces to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011. While the level of violence is escalating in Iraq on a daily basis, it is unlikely that there will be any major outbreak of sectarian fighting until the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces has been accomplished. But Maliki and the United States are reaping what they sowed when they certified the surge of 2007 as a major success.


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By firefly, November 7, 2010 at 1:56 am Link to this comment

While America claims to be the vanguard of freedom
and democracy.

The truth is that in the Middle East, few leaders
exist without the approval and backing of the US,
irrespective of the benefits to the people. America’s
needs come first! The US chooses who can govern, and
if the people don’t like their choice, they are
‘terrorists’.

If the US doesn’t like the people’s choice, the
government is a ‘terrorist state’ (as with Hamas and
Iran) and American subterfuge is used to support ‘the
people’ a.k.a., the opposition.

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, October 28, 2010 at 4:21 am Link to this comment

mdgr: Pointing the finger of blame is not just what is required to expiate/atone for the horrors, but it is also needed in order to unbind ourselves from inertial force those horrors have engendered.

Up to a point, beyond which it becomes reflexive catharsis. Beyond which, as well, it is just “bleating-in-a-blog” to release our pent-up frustrations.

Frankly, the repeated bitching is as interesting commentary to read as ... uh, dull dishwater. Besides, it focuses the debate on people/groups and not on methods, habits/motivations and means.

The real problem is in the latter. Change them and the former will fall into line. Meaning this: the tools are there to be used properly for the competent management of the economy and government. But we’ve put dunderheads in charge of the process.

That objective is far more difficult to attain in just one mid-term election. It is a long, long process of reformation—of the wasteful way we live and the manner in which we are educated to think and behave. It is a question, thus, of common values—which are wanting.

The New Age “be all ya wannabe” has led to the mess that we are in. People wannabe selfish and inward looking as they focus on their individual desires and needs. Their role models are the celebrity rich, made such by incessant media promotion.

When what is necessary is an enhancement of collective needs—better education, better health care, better usage of energy resources, better living conditions for more of our population.

And far less a wanton bent on personal accumulation of riches.

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By mdgr, October 26, 2010 at 11:10 pm Link to this comment

I would go a bit further yet from that of Moonraven

Lafayette:

Pointing the finger of blame is not just what is required to expiate/atone for the horrors, but it is also needed in order to unbind ourselves from inertial force those horrors have engendered. 

If we don’t, we will inevitably send political prisoners to Egyptian jails in the name of rendition, though we shall say there is no torture.

We shall continue to commit the same war crimes that were conducted under Bush, but under an even greater cover of darkness than that offered by Cheney.

It’s way too late for expiation at this late hour, however.

The Furies will still follow us and I am guessing that America will not escape them.

* * *

On another note, thank you so much Mr. Ritter for an astute strategic analysis of the situation in Iraq.

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By Ella Zahra, October 26, 2010 at 12:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is exactly what I have been thinking.  Thanks for articulating this analysis, Scott.

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By Arabian Sinbad, October 25, 2010 at 10:53 pm Link to this comment

By moonraven, October 25 at 10:20 pm

Lafayette:

Wrong.  Pointing the finger of blame is what is REQUIRED to expiate horrors.

Otherwise the door is always wide open to impunity and repetition.
=========================
Well said moonraven!

And I might add that identifying the perpetrators of these horrors is necessary as a precondition for bringing them to a court of justice and having them pay for their crimes; otherwise we will continue to regress backward into savagery and barbarity, and one day we will have not one Hitler, but many other Hitlers in these sad United States of America, which will be “united” only in criminality and crimes against humanity!

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By moonraven, October 25, 2010 at 6:20 pm Link to this comment

Lafayette:

Wrong.  Pointing the finger of blame is what is REQUIRED to expiate horrors.

Otherwise the door is always wide open to impunity and repetition.

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By tedmurphy41, October 25, 2010 at 8:08 am Link to this comment

Whatever the fate of Iraq, never forget how it all came about, not forgetting the dead and injured left on the road to this ‘impasse’.

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By omop, October 25, 2010 at 7:57 am Link to this comment

OK Boys and girls its time to call it as it is.

Its quite acceptable and honorable to ” install a NEW state” whose justificzation is
the pseudo-history that its people have been prosecuted because of their
RELIGiOUS BE is not soLIEFS ( the jews) in one area of the world in a different part
of the world and then claim that those who oppose such a state are all religious
zealots.

If that kind of logic[?] is not so deadly it would be hilarious.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 5:41 am Link to this comment

AS: The essence of my post, which was lost on you in your mistranslation, was to lament the perennially short-sighted and misguided policies of the US political establishment!

Yes, Lead-head’s administration botched this job royally.

But, so what?, that’s history. Pointing the finger of blame never ever solved the remaining problem.

Peace in the Middle-East is a maniac’s puzzle. Let them get on with it.

And America’s blind faith/support of Israel is an impediment to the process—as we are seeing once again with Netanyahu. Europe is far more bipartisan in its approach to this highly complex puzzle.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 5:33 am Link to this comment

Rob: Sadr isn’t Bin Laden, he’s more of a Hassan Nasrallah type, but his rise is a great wake up for the idiots who still try to justify the war.

Naive thinking.

He’s no better than the rest of the religious nutters in Iraq.

If in power, he will install a religious regime as exists in Iran. He could also be a major threat to Israel, meaning yet another to peace in the area.

It’s easy for us to talk about this ... we don’t live in Iraq.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 5:29 am Link to this comment

AS: I was making a comparison-contrast with the “very secular” Saddam Hussein, whom the Americans could not handle, by way of lamenting that the war in Iraq has resulted in empowering “fanatically religious” groups as opposed to the previously secular regime of Saddam Hussein.

Hussein was a “secular” murderous thug—an Iraqi version of Murder Inc. and hardly an acceptable alternative.

He had killed his way to the top of the Ba’athist Party, then killed anyone who got in his way in order that his family should stay there—and with preference anyone impertinent enough to challenge him from the Schia majority.

Good riddance to him and his to murderous sons.

Until the three ethnicities (Schia/Sunni/Kirds) arrive at an agreement that installs a modus vivendi between them, the killing will continue and Iraq will teeter on a tight-rope, with no safety net.

There are plenty of national precedents for a democracy wherein the power is shared between majority and minority factions: Switzerland, Finland, Latvia, Belgium - just to name three. It’s not easy, but it is a better option than killing one another.

Frankly, it all comes down to sharing oil revenues amongst the ethnicities.

N’est-ce pas?

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By Arabian Sinbad, October 25, 2010 at 5:07 am Link to this comment

By Lafayette, October 25 at 7:48 am

VERY RELIGIOUS?

You think anyone who bows down to pray to the Kaaba daily is “very religious”? Perhaps so, but that does not seem to prevent them from killing with wild abandon.

Just like us “Crusaders”, I might add, except that we pray elsewhere ...

Just how many people have died in the name of God/Allah/Whatever?
==============================================
Lafayette,

I think that you fully misunderstood the irony in my usage of the expression “very religious.” What I meant is to say “fanatically religious” in the same sense that you referred to the Crusaders.

I was making a comparison-contrast with the “very secular” Saddam Hussein, whom the Americans could not handle, by way of lamenting that the war in Iraq has resulted in empowering “fanatically religious” groups as opposed to the previously secular regime of Saddam Hussein.

The same situation is being repeated in Afghanistan, where after 10 years of killing and destruction, the US is being forced to negotiate with the fanatic Taliban as partners to end the quagmire they got themselves into.

The essence of my post, which was lost on you in your mistranslation, was to lament the perennially short-sighted and misguided policies of the US political establishment! And I was, en essence, expressing my unhappiness with the power of such groups as the one led by Al-Sadr!

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By Robespierre115, October 25, 2010 at 4:48 am Link to this comment

If Sadr were to take power in Iraq it would be a great ending to an imperialist adventure promoted by people like Christopher Hitchens who glorified the war as some sort of march against theocrats, fundamentalists etc. Sadr isn’t Bin Laden, he’s more of a Hassan Nasrallah type, but his rise is a great wake up for the idiots who still try to justify the war.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 3:48 am Link to this comment

VERY RELIGIOUS?

AS: the very religious Shi’ah-oriented Moqtada al-Sadr, closely allied with Shi’ah Iran in a sea of Sunni Islam

Very religious your cutthroat as-Sadr? What did he do, shortly after the invasion, when Imam al-Khoei rushed from London to Iraq to (possibly) become a major threat to al-Sadr’s hold on power?

This excerpt from here:

Some of his [al-Sadr] followers are alleged to be responsible for the assassination on 10 April 2003 of Imam Abdul Majid al-Khoei. Judge Raed Juhi, who conducted the investigation after the incident, issued arrest warrants against Sadr and two dozen others, but Sadr’s warrant was placed under seal by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Yes, yes - a pure fabrication of the Western Powers. I can see you writing it already ...

You think anyone who bows down to pray to the Kaaba daily is “very religious”? Perhaps so, but that does not seem to prevent them from killing with wild abandon.

Just like us “Crusaders”, I might add, except that we pray elsewhere ...

Just how many people have died in the name of God/Allah/Whatever?

POST SCRIPTUM: Though shalt not kill

Ditch the war, ditch the people who make war. Let them dig themselves back into the Deep, Deep Doodoo.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 3:18 am Link to this comment

Translation of very old French dictum:

The one-eyed man rules in the kingdom of the blind.

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By morristhewise, October 24, 2010 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment

There is little profit in defeating an enemy in a few days or months, but the beauty
of having the Taliban as an enemy is that they rarely come out to fight. Many live
in mountainous cracks and crevices and are supported by Pakistan who is
interested in maintaining a long war. Picking them off one by one can last forever,
it is no different in the war on drugs as soon as one pothead is busted another
lights up a joint.

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By Arabian Sinbad, October 24, 2010 at 8:16 pm Link to this comment

Good luck to the ever misguided political-America!

You could not handle the very secular Saddam Hussein, which you discarded after using him to achieve your “religion” of divide and conquer evil schemes in the area, and now you’re condemned to deal with the very religious Shi’ah-oriented Moqtada al-Sadr, closely allied with Shi’ah Iran in a sea of Sunni Islam.

The best recipe for unending conflicts, so you can continue to be the merchant of death, selling your weapons of mass destruction to both parties. As we speak, the normally non-combatant Saudis are in their way to purchase 60 billion worth of weapons, and the irony of this is that Israel has already given their approval of such sale!

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