We couldn’t (or wouldn’t) kill him when he tried to go to war against our military, but Moqtada al-Sadr has all but managed to commit political suicide. At one time, Sadr commanded tens of thousands of militia members and played kingmaker in national politics. Now the movement has all but faded as Sadr marginalized himself through a monumental political miscalculation last year, but a small coterie of Sadrists still haven’t quite realized that they’ve lost:
The followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr once were powerful enough to do battle against the U.S. military, play kingmaker in choosing Iraq’s prime minister and declare themselves the true defenders of the country’s Shiite majority.
But parliament’s approval last week of a security agreement that requires U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, a date the Sadrists consider far too distant, has underscored the movement’s waning influence. Sadr’s loyalists are on the defensive, struggling to remain politically relevant as the U.S. role in Iraq diminishes and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gains stature.
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.
Sadr decided last year to publicly oppose Nouri al-Maliki and his attempts to secure Iraq with the partnership of the US. He pulled his ministers out of Maliki’s government and expected it to fall. Instead, Maliki pursued the path that the US had demanded, building alliances with other Shi’ites, Kurds, and Sunnis to refocus on a national-unity coalition.
Without Sadr’s support, Maliki no longer had any reason to leave Sadr alone. Over the last few months, Maliki dislodged the Mahdi Army from its strongholds throughout Iraq, starting in Basra. Sadr fled into Iran, refusing to fight, which has angered even the Mahdis that remain loyal.
Araji can preach the Sadrist fantasy all he wants. The Mahdis are a spent force, compromised by Sadr’s flight to Iran and his hiding behind the skirts of the mullahcracy. They no longer have the power to affect the unity of Iraq, either militarily or politically.