The Blog

Sadr's in a JAM

It looks like his militia got routed.

12:00 AM, Apr 22, 2008 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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* Fighting continued in the Sadr city section of Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have been pursuing elements of the Mahdi militia and Iranian-backed "special groups," some dozens of whom have been captured and killed. Although Sadr, still thought to be in Iran, threatened a "third uprising," issuing a "last direct warning and speech to the Iraqi government to refrain and take the path of peace and abandon violence against its people. If the government does not refrain and leash the militias that have penetrated it, we will announce an open war until liberation." Sounding less like a firebrand speaking from a perfect position, the cleric lamented, "This government has forgotten that we are their brothers and were part of them." Et tu, Nuri?

* The Iranian ambassador does not appreciate the assaults on Sadr City; unlike the Basra offensive--which targeted some groups less responsive to Iranian influence--the Baghdad campaign "would aggravate the situation and make things worse" from the Iranian perspective.

While it's very difficult to tell who's up and who's down in Baghdad on a day-to-day basis, what seems increasingly clear is that the Shia community, like the Sunni community before it, is reaching a point where it is fracturing and beginning to reject those who have staked themselves--and whose future depends--on stoking sectarian extremism.

There's even a struggle in the Sadrist movement. On April 12, Riyadh Noori, a senior aide and in-law of Sadr and a suspect in the 2003 killing of Abdel Majid Khoei, a respected cleric and rival of Sadr's, was gunned down in Najaf. It remains unclear who killed Noori, but Sheik Fatih Khashic Ghitaa, director of the Al Thaqalayn Center for Strategic Studies, probably got it right when he told the Los Angeles Times, "It's going to be a fight among the Sadrist people themselves because three or four parts of the Mahdi Army are splintering."

This moment of flux is also a moment of tremendous opportunity for the United States and its Iraqi allies, and not least of all Prime Minister Maliki, once almost universally reviled (and still reviled in the western press) as a weakling unlikely to serve out his term. And while the halting successes in Basra and Baghdad reveal some of the underlying problems of the Iraqi Army and other security forces, Maliki has persevered and his willingness to take a risk may be rewarded--it is Maliki, not Sadr or his Iranian backers, who has emerged stronger in the past weeks.

Over the next six months it's reasonable to hope--though we've all heard this before--that, at last, a new Iraq will emerge: the offensive against al Qaeda remnants continues in the north of Iraq, the Sadrists have lost momentum and cohesion, and upcoming elections improve the prospects for bringing to power a newly responsive central government. Taken together, these trends measure a kind of Iraqi surge of the sort that was envisioned by the American surge of the past year.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.