Moqtada al-Sadr canceled his protest march scheduled for today in the streets of Baghdad, further giving credence to reports of his political isolation. Instead of marking the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Iraqi capital to American troops as a protest against the continuing American presence, the Iraqi government has demonstrated its strength against his movement and forced Sadr into another embarrassing retreat:
Two aides in al-Sadr’s office in the holy city of Najaf told The Associated Press that the rally had been canceled. They spoke on condition of anonymity pending an official announcement.
Al-Sadr had called for a “million-strong” protest to mark the fifth anniversary of the capture of Baghdad by U.S. troops. It was seen by many observers as a show of force in his confrontation with the government over calls to disband his Mahdi Army militia.
Sadr called it off, he explained in a statement, because he was afraid his supporters would be attacked. Really? The Western media take great pains to remind us how many supporters he has in Baghdad’s Sadr City, with over 2 million residents. Surely a man with that kind of popularity would have no trouble finding enough people for a demonstration with hundreds of thousands of people at the least — and with that kind of strength, who would attack them?
It looks a lot more like Sadr couldn’t gin up enough people to meet the lofty expectations he set for the demonstration. Apparently the Iraqi government set up roadblocks to keep Sadr supporters from entering Baghdad from the south for the rally, not wanting the militias to take to the streets of the capital for more fighting. That indicates that Sadr hasn’t got nearly as much strength in Baghdad as some think. If he’s trucking demonstrators in from Basra, then (a) he doesn’t have enough in Sadr City despite its population of 2 million, and (b) the people of Baghdad apparently don’t mind the American presence as much as Sadr does.
What’s next for Sadr? His militias continue to get pressed by the Iraqi Army in Basra, which shows no signs of leaving. The other militias have already pledged to disband or enter the Iraqi security forces and accept the authority of the central government. He doesn’t even have the political support necessary to stage a decent demonstration in a large community that bears the name of his own father. Either he has to disband the militia or accept exile.