Friday, February 22, 2008

Al-Sadr Has a Hitchcock-Like Flair for Suspense

Cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr (that handsome gentleman pictured below) has extended his ceasefire in a most last-minute way today. With the previous ceasefire with US and Iraqi forces (set six months ago) due to expire Sunday, the Cleric was making very few noises as to whether or not he would continue it further. US Analysts were baffled as to whether he would continue the ceasefire or not... in large part due to the fact that nobody is quite sure what Al-Sadr wants. But extend it he did, and there are lessons to be drawn from today's news.

Al-Sadr seems to have first declared a ceasefire because the Mahdi Army (his personal militant group) was in trouble. They had started fighting with other Shiite groups, and got pretty beat up in the process, back in July. He hoped to reorganize, regroup, and bring a newfound discipline to the army before deciding what to do next.

At the time, it seemed that he wasn't prepared to start working together with American or pro-American elements in Iraq. His rhetoric remained strong. Despite this, American military and political officials praised his decision, and (sortof) implicitly pardoned the Mahdi Army (though there have since been arrests, much to Al-Sadr's chagrin). The current extension comes with little public reasoning, other than commitments to peaceful vanquishing of Allah's enemies (the US), as well as the intruders (US), invaders (US), infidels (yeah, you get the idea), and the like.

The US army is extremely appreciative of the move. With sharp positive trends in Iraqi security over the past six months, Al-Sadr's ceasefire has given the Multi-National Force and Iraqi Army time to build infrastructure, to consolidate security in other hot spots, and, most importantly, win the support and trust of Iraqi civilians. If Al-Sadr's army, presumably rebuilt, resumed operations, much of the "delicate" (as Gen. Petraeus consistently calls it) progress could start to fall apart.

Why did Al-Sadr extend the ceasefire, particularly if it helps the United States' goals? These are some of my speculations, but it is likely to be one or more of these:

1) The US is giving him immunity in return. With US and Iraqi troop levels still high, an end to peace could do more damage to the Mahdi army than to the US. American troop levels are likely to decline after the summer, and Al-Sadr may try to be patient and take better opportunities, later. In addition, the US is respecting the ceasefire, and may have even decided not to arrest or kill him if given the opportunity, which will largely allow him to power-grab in the Shiite regions of Iraq unmolested.

2) The Mahdi army is not yet rebuilt.
It's possible Al-Sadr is dissatisfied with the progress of the last six months, and thinks the next six months will bring about more. Alliances or deals with other groups may still be in the works. Either way, it's possible he is anticipating the Army's strength growing.

3) Al-Sadr's plan has backfired, and he has lost support. This is the most interesting possibility. The Mahdi army did very well in part due to the fact that it could provide security when American and Iraqi forces could not; Mahdi Army agents patrolled neighborhoods and protected civilians in return for monetary or other support. Because Al-Sadr declared a ceasefire during the surge, security improved very quickly as US troops became more present in urban neighborhoods. With the Mahdi army gone and US and Iraqi troops happy to provide security (and effectively) for free, support for the Mahdi army among many of their former patrons may have declined. Radical Shiites may not amongst themselves own enough resources to make the Mahdi army as strong as it once was. Given this, extended peace may be Al-Sadr's only good plan.

Lessons: What US policymakers should learn from this move is that militant groups can be dealt with in ways other than military. Al-Sadr may not be in much contact with Multi-National Forces, but there is some, and communication between both groups has passed through public hearings and press conferences; Al-Sadr may have to talk tough, but the careful listener can often hear where he is willing to make deals.

Sometimes, making deals with militant groups is key; fighting them all at once has proven impossible in Iraq, and similar efforts will yield similar results in future conflicts. We have learned that some Muslim extremists are more reasonable than others; some have real, tangible political goals, and those goals can be bargained with, like with any political group with an army. We must distinguish between Al-Qaeda-like groups (whose goals, like "Death to America," cannot be discussed or bargained), and groups like the Mahdi Army, whose political goals may cost us less to help than to hinder.

Hopefully, this cease-fire will help Petraeus and the Multi-National Forces shore up the security situation in Iraq over the next six months. Now, we just have to wait for the Iraqi parliament to start meeting more of those benchmarks.

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