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How The Mighty Sadr Has Fallen

11:51 AM, Dec 5, 2008 • By BILL ROGGIO
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For the past year, we've been inundated with news of radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr's power and influence. Last year, the American Spectator's George H. Wittman asked if Sadr was a kingmaker or a king. This spring, just days after the fighting in Basrah began, Time magazine's Charles Crain wrote an article explaining how Muqtada al Sadr won in Basrah.

Just before the fighting against the Mahdi Army began in lat March, Patrick Cockburn, The Independent's Middle East correspondent, lauded Sadr by saying the Shia "regard Muqtada as a sort of god." Sadr plays "a very critical role" in Iraqi politics, Cockburn told us. He is "the biggest Shia leader with the most popular support. If there were elections tomorrow he would probably sweep Shia Baghdad and most of the south."

How quickly the narrative on Sadr has changed. Today, the Washington Post describes a weakened Sadr, with a near-toothless political movement, struggling to find its path after suffering a stinging defeat after the passage of the Status of Forces agreement between the United States and Iraq.

The day after the agreement's passage, anger lined the face of Hazim al-Araji, Sadr's top aide. Inside a gold-domed shrine in Baghdad's Kadhimiyah neighborhood, he railed against Iraq's lawmakers. "They ignored our ideas and thoughts when they signed this agreement," he said from his pulpit. "They paid no attention to all our martyrs who gave their blood fighting the occupation."

Araji, 39, stands at the center of Sadr's efforts to shape his followers into a religious and social movement that can maintain his popularity. In interviews across Baghdad and in the Shiite religious heartland of Najaf, where Shiite groups are vying for their community's leadership, Sadrists insist they still have the power to divide Iraq or keep it together.

Melding Koranic verse with political invective, Araji urged the crowd to resist the pact and their movement's foes. "Iraq has been killed! Iraq has been sold!" he thundered. "America is now the enemy of God."

The congregation of a few thousand was smaller than usual, a sign of the Sadrists' uncertain future.

The decline in Sadr's power and influence began long before the Iraqi government's offensive to drive his Mahdi Army from the streets of Basrah, Baghdad, and the cities of central and southern Iraq. Despite media accounts to the contrary, Sadr declared a six-month ceasefire in Najaf in August 2007 because his forces suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of the Iraqi security forces when his thuggish Mahdi Army initiated fighting during a religious festival. Despite the ceasefire, U.S. and Iraqi forces continued to dismantle Sadr's Iranian-backed Mahdi Army. In February, Sadr renewed the ceasefire as Iraqi and U.S. forces stepped up pressure and targeted senior Mahdi Army ands Sadrist leaders.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki became overconfident and jumped the gun in late March, launching an offensive to clear besieged Basrah of the Mahdi Army. The initial offensive stumbled, but elite Iraqi units, more than a division's worth, were rushed to Basrah. Sadr soon capitulated. The fighting spread to Sadr City, but the Mahdi Army relented after suffering staggering casualties during six weeks of fighting. Sadr then ordered the disbandment of the Mahdi Army and pulled the Sadrist movement from the upcoming election. Still, Iraqi security forces pressed against the Mahdi Army in southern and central Iraq.

Sadr's militia was systematically being taken apart for well over a year, and his political capital started to wane during that time. The vote over the status of forces agreements showed just how isolated and out of the mainstream the Sadrist movement is in Iraqi politics. Of the 199 votes cast, 149 voted for the agreement, 35 voted against, and 15 abstained. Thirty of the votes against the agreement came from the Sadrist bloc. All of the signs of the demise of Sadr and his movement have been there. The media either missed it, or chose to ignore it, until now.