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February 20, 2008

Look out for Sadr
Posted by Patrick Barry

When it first looked as if the situation in Iraq was improving, people found themselves generally attributing the security gains to one of two developments: the sudden influx of US troops or the ascension of various ‘awakening’ groups who allied themselves with the United States.  The implications entailed by each position are clear to anyone spending more than 10 minutes a day on this blog.

What tends to get lost in this Surge-vs-Awakening debate is the impact that Moqtada    al-Sadr’s 6-month truce has had on Iraq’s security.  His decision to clamp down on militant activities back in August has translated into significant security gains.  Unfortunately, that window of stability may close on Saturday.

Anxieties are growing that Sadr will shirk calls to stay passive and US forces are pleading with him to keep his militias at bay.  And who can blame them? Violence levels, especially in Sadr’s strongholds around Baghdad, have declined steeply since he demanded that his followers temporarily lay down arms.  The prospect of a reinvigorated Sadrist militia roaming the streets looms fearfully in the minds of US commanders.

The United States is coming to realize what Iraqis themselves have long understood: Moqtada al-Sadr will play a pivotal role in the future of the country.  Before, administration officials viewed him as a rogue, presiding over a rag-tag group of Shi’a militants. But now, Sadr is in a position so advantageous that it renders such claims untenable. He has consolidated authority over rogue elements within his militia and he has taken the first steps towards attaining Ayatollah status – a title that would dramatically increase his influence. 

Anxiousness over Sadr’s next move reflects broader concerns about integrating him and his cohorts into the political mainstream and functions as an acknowledgement that he has become an immovable feature of the Iraqi landscape.  With this in mind, we should be watching Saturday’s events carefully. 


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If Sadr ends the ceasefire, it could really change the history of conflict in Iraq, number one by diminishing the military success of the surge and number two by changing Bush's legacy. Of course, these are just possibilities, but I can't agree with you enough that the decision will be huge if he ends the truce.