Saturday, April 29, 2006

Al-Sistani, al-Sadr's Militia & the Future of Iraq

Last August I posted on "Who Is Iraq's George Washington?" Given the lack of any one individual or small group of towering leaders I somewhat sarcastically suggested "al-Sistani? al-Sadr? Chalabi?" I had been thinking of a political unifier, a secular leader at the time. Today, however, I am rethinking the whole picture.

You see, yesterday, Shi'ite religious leader al-Sistani consulted with the newly-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Jawad al-Maliki and released a statement requiring that all armed militias surrender their autonomy and weapons to the authority of the Iraqi security forces.

While Sistani is the most powerful religious figure in Iraq he does not hold any sway with Sunni or Kurdish citizens. Who, then, was he talking to? Without any doubt his statement was directed at the man who would like to be the most powerful Shi'ite religious leader as well as the most powerful political figure in the nation: al-Sadr.

The next few months will be interesting to watch; sort of like having front-row seats at the "gunfight at the OK Corral." Consider the following:

1. Al-Sadr has the largest armed militia in Iraq. His followers will willingly do anything he asks of them--even the laying down of their lives. Sadr's militia is, by far, the most destablizing factor in Iraq today; even more so than al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents. This is because al-Sadr wields power among the Shi'ite majority population and they don't. He is a fanatic who craves personal power and control (both political and religious) and who has shown a willingness to confront al-Sistani and foment sectarian violence that could lead to the oft-discussed, but not yet full-blown, Iraqi "civil war."

Getting al-Sadr to surrender control of his militia would signify nothing short of a total surrender and humiliation; a capitulation and submission to al-Sistani as his superior. I will be surprised if al-Sadr will do this willingly. I expect that there will be public expressions of agreement, but, in reality, defiance, deceit and resistance possibly leading to an attempt to overthrow al-Sistani himself.

Sadr cannot take over the government, at least not as long as the United States remains an armed presence in Iraq. As each day passes the growing strength of the Iraqi security forces reduce his chances of seizing power even after the United States has withdrawn.

He is still capable, however, of seizing control of the religious Shi'ite majority.

As such, al-Sadr remains the single most important obstacle to a secure and successful united Iraq (and, of course, to the all-important draw-down of American military forces).

2. Al-Sadr has, by most accounts, linked his star to Iran. He has decided that what is good for him is good for Iran and vice versa. His view of Islamic rule and sharia is far closer to the Iranian Ayatollahs than to al-Sistani and traditional Iraqi Shi'a practice.

With the crisis over Iran's potential nuclear development and the relentless and threatening posturing of Iran's leadership towards Israel and the West, the need to "shake down Sadr" becomes even more vital to the future security of both Iraq and the entire Middle East.

Given the potential for al-Sadr to unravel the costly efforts of the United States to bring political moderation and stability to the region it is clear that the time has come for him to be taken down.

It will be difficult for al-Sadr to resist this demand, given that it has come from both the highest elected/appointed Shi'ite political leader in the new, national-unity government as well as from the highest Shi'ite spiritual authority in the country (not to mention the full backing of the United States). I do not believe that this challenge would have come unless both al-Sistani and the Iraqi government felt secure and powerful enough to make it. I do not believe that this is a bluff but the real deal, long planned and stratgically timed.

Al-Sadr must be disarmed before any potential military response to Iran can be made.

For Sadr to be de-clawed, the goverment must be able to prove that it can provide effective security for the Shi'ite population and their religious shrines.

If this plays out well then the "mopping up" of the Sunni insurgency and the withering remains of Zarqawi's al-Qaeda operation can become the focus of Iraqi security. American and coalition forces can then be turned towards effectively securing Iran's vast and incredibly porous borders with Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. This will, in turn, prepare Iraq and the region for the horrific terrorism swarm that will most certainly ensue as a result of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

I guess I must say that, if and when a history of Iraq's rise to freedom is ever written, one of the names most prominantly featured will be that of al-Sistani. Maybe not a "George Washington" but nonetheless a man of courage, conviction, calculation and cooperation whose spiritual authority (somewhat like a quiet, more passive and non-revolutionary John Knox) enabled a secular and democratic revolution to succeed.

On the pessimistic side, it is unsettling to see a non-governmental authority wielding so much power and influence. But such will always be the case in Muslim-majority nations. Along with this there is, of course, always the possibility that al-Sistani has a hidden personal agenda of his own. Based on my own study and assessment I am inclined to be more optimistic than pessimistic on this point. A quick read through al-Sistani's personal religious web-site (well worth several hours of your time) will demonstrate a penchant for reasonable, rational, consistant, and conservative (but not radical/revolutionary) Islamic Shi'ite thought.

At least one can hope.