Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sadr ministers out, now what?

In a sudden move, Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has pulled his ministers out of the Iraqi cabinet. Many people are asking me why. It’s a good question, and I’ve being thinking about the reasons and implications. They aren’t very easy to determine because of the jumpy, and often illogical, way that this political faction thinks and behaves.

One possible theory being circulated is the six ministers were already on their way to be replaced according to PM Maliki’s cabinet reshuffle plan. So the resignations were like quitting your job before your boss fires you in order to preserve your dignity and save face.

But this explanation strikes me as overly simplistic.
The faction’s threat to leave the government, and the decision to go forward with it, took place while other developments elsewhere, in the country in which the Sadr group is a major player, were taking place and may have played a role in the decision..

What I think is that Sadr is making a decision in which he plans to switch from half-government-half-opposition status to all-out opposition.
This has not been declared explicitly so far.
Why? Because while Sadr’s followers are still quite strong, whether in the political wing or in the Mehdi army, they haven’t and appear incapable of achieving the level of exclusive dominance they aspire to. They can make serious trouble and occupy the streets for a while when they want, but those periods of time aren’t enough for them anymore.

Thus far, the results of the war between Sadr on one side and the government and the coalition on the other side - particularly in the southern part of the country- have been a disappointment for Sadr. It’s likely that he’s considering adopting a new approach by openly declaring his party in the opposition.

In Diwaniya, his militiamen have been defeated and the Iraqi and coalition forces are back in control. In Hilla, the Mehdi army members are being dealt with as outlaws by the local security forces. At least one of Sadr’s offices was burned a few weeks ago, and the statements by local officials during the last month or two clearly showed determination on not letting the militia take over the city.
It’s actually a complex situation because this approach will very likely be different from the one Sadr used back in 2003 and 2004 when his group was yet to become part of the political process. Back then, Sadr was the spiritual leader as well as the field commander of his militia, publicly endorsing his fighters and not hiding his involvement in the armed “resistance”.

In my opinion, Sadr and his political wing will now pretend to distance themselves from the armed wing, which is what they’ve been doing for some time now, while actually keeping -if not increasing- the support for armed operations against military and civilian targets. at the same time, they will try to drive more people into opposing the government and the presence of coalition troops with spectacular protests here and there. And they will find nothing wrong if those “peaceful protesters” occasionally decide to use force and shoot at Iraqi and US soldiers or eliminate those who collaborate with the government and the coalition, because “that’s not us, not the Mehdi army. It’s the people’s reaction to an incompetent government and an illegal occupation”.

Now that they have left the government, they’re going to take advantage of simple-minded people who will no longer blame them for lack of basic services, because the Sadrists are not part of this government anymore. They will redirect all the blame onto Maliki and the coalition, when in fact, it was the Sadr bloc ministers who were controlling three of the most important ministries in charge of basic services: Health, Education and Transportation, in addition to three others.
That’s a point dwarfed by the militia’s direct role in Iraqi’s suffering.

Hints of this new policy are already in the air: the Sadrists organized large protests in Basra yesterday, in which reportedly thousands chanted against the local government in demand of better services and warning of an escalation if their demands are not met. Meanwhile the al-Fadheela Party, to which the governor belongs, said it was afraid some group might assassinate him. Of course, Sadr’s aides denied any involvement in the planning of the protests and protestors were carrying Iraqi flags instead of Sadr’s banners as usual. Still, not many people really bought the act.

Sadr is of the kind of tyrant who would try all methods he can to either control the entire nation of Iraq or, if he fails, destroy it altogether.
His inability to control the country from within the political process makes me think that he’ll try for the latter.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the words which Sadr used to close his message to Maliki this week, were technically an open threat.
In the Islamic culture, the expression “Assalam ala man Ittaba’ al-Huda” (or “peace be upon those who follow the right path”) includes more threats than wishes for peace: its implied meaning is “Follow the right path [our path] or face the consequences.”

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