Mar 14, 2014
Beyond Kingmaker: Moqtada al-Sadr and the Future of Iraq
Posted on Oct 24, 2010
By Scott Ritter
The surge accomplished nothing of substance. The Sunni insurgency is reforming, armed and trained by the United States over the past three years and operating with a political and financial base of support from Syria and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Despite the much-heralded killing of Abu Musab al-Zaqarwi in 2006, al-Qaida in Iraq has proved to be a resilient foe that has never been truly defeated. The Kurdish Peshmerg has never disarmed or disbanded, but rather serves as a de facto independent military force backed by the newly found oil wealth of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Badr Brigade continues to operate, either as an independent militia or morphed into one of the various “official” security services which exist in Iraq today. And Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army likewise waits in the shadows, a large and viable force that can switch from political activism to militancy overnight. All sides are preparing for open warfare once the withdrawal of American forces is complete. The Iraqi army exists in name only. Once a major outbreak of sectarian fighting commences, it is highly likely the security services Washington is relying upon to hold Iraq together will themselves dissolve, breaking apart along ethnic and religious lines.
The principal beneficiary from the political collapse of Maliki and Allawi will be the Iraqi National Alliance. Moqtada al-Sadr has reached out to the Sunnis of Iraq in the past, most notably in 2004 when he sent his fighters and supplies to assist in the battle for Fallujah. There is every reason to believe Sadr will continue to reach out to the Sunnis as they lose faith in Ayyad Allawi’s ability to deliver any discernable political result. Maliki’s coalition is heavy with secular-minded Shiites who reject the kind of heavy-handed form of Islamic government that had been the mainstay of SCIRI and Hakim, but who very well might rally around the more subtle approach that seems to be the trademark of Sadr’s “governance of the people.” Of equal importance, at a time when the interference of outside parties in the internal affairs of Iraq has manifested itself in growing resentment for those, like Maliki and Allawi, who are seen as the proxies of foreign interests, someone like Sadr, who is a true product of the Iraqi people, will have a viability that the others lack. Sadr is a reality that three of Iraq’s neighbors—Iran, Turkey and Syria—recognize and, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, embrace. Of all the political figures who factor in Iraq’s future, only Moqtada al-Sadr possesses the combination of domestic and regional support that will allow him to assume a leadership role. The fact that this role will be indirect, via the Shiite Marja he hopes to lead, only makes him more of a political threat to those who are opposed to him, since he will be largely immune from the vagaries of secular politics that are the bane of politicians everywhere.
While it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty what the political landscape of Iraq will look like in the coming weeks, months and even years, what is clear is that those who currently aspire to run the Iraqi government will most probably not be in power. The future of Iraqi politics will more than likely be constructed around a new Iraqi government authority, one dominated by a newly anointed Ayatollah Moqtada al-Sadr and his completed ideology of “governance of the people.” As demonstrated by his willingness to explore potential political partnerships with both Allawi and Maliki, Sadr has positioned himself as both a peacemaker and deal breaker.
But the reality is that even Moqtada al-Sadr cannot stop the looming violence in Iraq. Instead, he will distance himself from both the violence and those who will lead it, and maneuver to be a force of reconciliation. In this, he will be assisted by the governments of Turkey, Syria and Iran, which have stepped into the void of regional problem-solving created when the Bush administration embraced the military surge, rather than the alternatives offered by the Baker-Hamilton Report, which endorsed American diplomatic outreach to both Syria and Iran. Neither Islamic revolution nor nationalist dictatorship, a Sadr-dominated Iraq would come as close to constituting a legitimate democracy as one could hope for in a land beset with so many difficulties, if only given a chance. Moqtada al-Sadr’s role as an Iraqi kingmaker goes beyond the politics of the moment. Whether or not he can survive the looming civil war in Iraq, or the Machiavellian posturing of his numerous detractors, is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: Short of killing the king, Sadr is, and will continue to be, the principal player in Iraq for many years to come.
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