Eye on Iraq; Sadr's long game

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  March 20, 2007 at 4:18 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- Is Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shiite leader the Bush administration loves to hate, really feeling the heat in Baghdad? Or are things going his way?

The U.S. military says that even if the fiercely anti-American and Iranian-backed Sadr is not on the ropes, he is certainly reeling. "USA Today" reported March 13 a statement by Gen. David Petraeus, the new U.S. ground forces commander in Iraq, that no less than 700 militiamen in Sadr's Mahdi Army had already been captured and put behind bars as U.S. forces, strengthened by President George W, Bush's new "surge" strategy, steadily move into the Shiite Muslim strongholds of Sadr City in Baghdad.

The U.S. drive has damped down the previously fierce direct clashes between Sunni Muslim and Shiite militias in Baghdad with neither side wanting to risk getting a hammering from the vastly superior firepower of U.S. forces. However, as the USA Today article acknowledged, so far the U.S. "surge" has not managed to damp down the continuing onslaught of Sunni insurgent terror bombings against "soft" Shiite civilian targets.

However, in a new analysis released last week, one of Americas most respected military analysts, Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A., Burke chair in strategy at the center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, argued that Sadr's current low profile in the Baghdad fighting did not reflect weakness, or the success of U.S. forces in crippling his Mahdi Army.

Instead, Cordesman argued, Sadr was successful following a long-term political strategy that was likely to boost his already powerful influence in Iraq's 60 percent majority Shiite community at the expense of other, more moderate leaders.

"Sadr is the odd man out, but he is so far standing down his militia and he is scarcely isolated or dependent on the use of force," Cordeman wrote in his analysis, entitled "The New Strategy in Iraq: Uncertain Progress Towards an Unknown Goal."

"All of the Shiite leadership (in Iraq) are rivals to some degree," Cordesman wrote. Al-Dawa is much weaker than SCIRI (The Supreme Council of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq), and al-Dawa ties to Sadr balance out the other main faction's strength."

"Sadr also clearly has more to win in a relatively peaceful power struggle for a political and economic role in a Shiite coalition than having his militia fight a combination of the U.S. and ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) in Baghdad," " Cordesman wrote..

Sadr, whose father was a prominent Iraqi Shiite ayatollah murdered during Saddam Hussein's rule, "faces a future in which outside powers are going to largely leave," Cordesman wrote.

Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani "may well be becoming yesterday's man, and figures like (SCIRI leader Abd-al-Aziz al-)Hakim and (current Prime Minister Nouri al-)Maliki may fade.

Sadr therefore "benefits from their defeat (and those of rival Shiite militia forces) and can exploit that defeat to attack the United States politically at the same time," Cordesman wrote.

Several other factors appear to be contributing to Sadr's current low profile.

First, he clearly remembers the hammering his Mahdi Army received at the hands of U.S regular forces in Iraq when it rose up against them three years ago. And the United States has significantly more troops and the ground and armored assets deployed with them now than it did then. Sadr, therefore, has learned the lesson that it would be suicide for him to rise up against U.S. forces isolated with only his own militia.

Second, however, this conclusion would not preclude Sadr from authorizing a new rising against U.S. forces in Iraq if the Iranian government told him to do it and if he was joined in it by other forces, such as SCIRI.

At the moment, this appears highly unlikely if the conflict in Iraq simply continues along its current path. But if U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf launch any air strikes to try and destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, Tehran would almost certainly retaliate in every way it could against the American hyper-power.

One of the most obvious options would be to order the forces it has financed, equipped, trained and otherwise supported in Iraq to rise up en masse against the U.S. forces concentrated in Baghdad.

The two main areas of strength for Sadr and His Mahdi Army are in Sadr City - originally called Saddam City but what was then named after his martyred father and his own two brothers who were killed along with their father -- and in the Shiite controlled south.

There, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has pledged to fully evacuate all of the about 8,700 British troops who have been serving there. And the "softly, softly" British policy in dealing with the region is now widely recognized to have collapsed totally. The mosaic of Shiite militias, including the Mahdi Army, has become the real power over the entire southern half of the country as a result.

That means that in the event of a U.S. air attack on Iran, a rising in sympathy by a coalition of Shiite militias, would not have to frontally attack U.S. ground forces in Iraq to bring serious pressure on them. All they would have to do would be to cut the precarious land line from Kuwait and the Gulf to Baghdad.

It therefore makes tactical sense for Sadr to avoid any isolated head-on clash now with U.S. forces in Baghdad under circumstances that are highly favorable to U.S. military might. This also allows him to continue quietly building up his military forces and supplies so that militia is better prepared when more favorable opportunities to strike in coalition with other Shiite groups occur.

. Even if that does not happen, the failure of U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces troops to prevent the continuing slaughter of Shiite civilians in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq also plays into Sadr's hands. For a figure so often caricatured as a hothead in the U.S. media, he is showing himself adept at biding his time and playing the long game.

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