When Moqtada al-Sadr extended his cease-fire in Iraq last month, many wondered what he had in mind. Did he intend to bide his time, purge his movement of dissenters, or simply withdraw from public life to study Islam in Iran? Almost two weeks ago, Sadr himself provided an answer. He failed:

“I have failed to liberate Iraq, and transform its society into an Islamic society.”
— Moqtada al-Sadr, Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, March 8, 2008

Moqtada al-Sadr — the radical cleric dubbed “The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq” by a Newsweek cover story in December 2006 — has just unilaterally extended the ceasefire he imposed on his Mahdi Army militia last summer. And on the eve of the Iraq War’s fifth anniversary, Sadr also issued a somber but dramatic statement. He not only declared that he had failed to transform Iraq, but also lamented the new debates and divisions within his own movement. Explaining his marginalization, Sadr all but confessed his growing isolation: “One hand cannot clap alone.”

What happened? Over the past five years, Sadr has been one of the most persistent and insurmountable challenges for the U.S. Leveraging his family’s prestige among the disaffected Shiite underclass, he asserted his power by violently intimidating rival clerics, agitating against the U.S. occupation, and using force to establish de facto control over Baghdad’s Sadr City (named after his father, and home to two million Shiites on the east bank of the Tigris) and large swaths of southern Iraq.

Sadr failed for a number of reasons, but chief among them was the change in American strategy in early 2007. Until the US began to fight with a counterinsurgency strategy, basic security needs had gone unmet, especially in Baghdad. Sadr filled the vacuum with his Mahdi Army, providing protection for the Shi’ite residents, especially in Sadr City. The US and the fledgling Iraqi security services were either unable or unwilling to protect Shi’ites against Sunni terrorists, but Sadr’s forces shielded them and allowed them to fight back against their tormentors.

Unfortunately for Sadr, two things occurred. His Mahdi militiamen applied their radical Islamist impulses to their own communities. While the Shi’a bitterly resented the Sunnis, they did not want to trade their relatively secular governance for a strict imposition of shari’a — coincidentally, the same problem al-Qaeda in Iraq had in the Sunni areas they controlled. Shi’ites under the protection of the Mahdis came to resent their brutality almost as much as the Sunnis who attacked them.

When the US finally changed strategies and put boots on the street in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Shi’ites no longer needed the Mahdis for protection. They didn’t have to choose between two different sets of oppressors, and responded to the professionalism of the US military and the growing Iraqi security forces we trained. The entire raison d’etre of the Mahdis and of Sadr dissipated in 2007, leaving Sadr with a damaged political base and no particular way to muscle his way back into power. Nouri al-Maliki realized this and dumped Sadr for the slightly more moderate Supreme Islamic Iraq Council, which has been Sadr’s political and militia opponent in the south since the invasion.

By the time 2008 arrived, Sadr had failed, and he knew it. Ending the cease-fire would only have left his organization vulnerable to coordinated attack from the central government and the more robust American forces. Worse, it would have forced new leadership to the fore in the Mahdi Army, leadership that Sadr would not be able to control. The surge has completely wrong-footed Sadr and left him with few options except in the religious sphere, where he will not cause much trouble.

This could still change, as Dan Senor and Roman Martinez warn. An eruption of sectarian violence could rebirth the conditions which gave Sadr power for a period of time. With more Iraqi troops coming on line and the Americans shifting to logistics and support, as well as rebuilding, that seems less and less likely.

Via Michael Goldfarb at the essential Weekly Standard blog, who notes: “[I]f Sadr required chaos in order to leverage support for his Islamist agenda, as Senor and Martinez suggest, then the surge has clearly chopped off that other hand.”