Muqtada al-Sadr stands for everything in Iraq that we do not understand. The exiles we imported to run the country following Saddam's fall are suave and well-dressed; Muqtada is glowering and elusive. The exiles parade before the cameras in the Green Zone; Muqtada stays in the streets, in the shadows, surfacing occasionally to give a wild sermon about the return of the hidden twelfth imam. The Americans proclaim Muqtada irrelevant; his face adorns the walls of every teashop in Shiite Iraq. The Americans attack; Muqtada disappears. The Americans offer a deal, and Muqtada responds: only after you leave.Who is Muqtada al-Sadr? What does he want? And how many divisions does he have? That we know so little so late about someone so central to the fate of Iraq is an indictment of anyone associated with the American endeavor there. But it is also a measure of Iraq itself: of its complexity, its mutability, its true nature as an always-spinning kaleidoscope of alliances, deals, and double- crosses. Muqtada al-Sadr is not merely a mirror of our ignorance, he is also a window onto the unforgiving land where we have seen so many of our fortunes disappear.
Administration policymakers have ignored, underestimated and prematurely written off Sadr since before the invasion (when few, if any, even knew who he was), to immediately after the invasion (when he was dismissed as an insignificant rabble rouser not worthy of attention), through a series of clashes with US forces and subsequent poltical maneuvers (after and during which Bush administration officials and their supporters have proclaimed Sadr and his movement dead so many times that cat's stare in awe at his innumerable lives).
Even now, there is much buzz about the impact of the recent anti-Sadr operations in Basra and Sadr City - with many pointing to the fact that Iraqi government forces are in both places as a sign of Sadr's diminishing relevance. I would caution against putting too much stock into that reading.
Some basic facts to consider: the Sadrist trend is generally estimated as comprising between 3-5 million Iraqis. That would put his movement in the range of 15-20% of the entire Iraqi population (especially when you consider that, due to the relatively modest means of his constituents, few Sadrists were among the massive exodus of some 2 million wealthier Iraqis that fled the country as refugees).
Though not a cleric yet himself, Moqtada is the heir to a well respected and immensely popular clerical lineage that dates back many decades (his father and father's cousin were extremely influential Grand Ayatollahs). Beyond the sheer numbers of his constituency, Sadr represents a social movement (and an effective network that distributes vital services to millions of poorer Iraqis) and brand of religious millenarianism (Mahdism) that has a rich and lengthy tradition throughout Iraq's Shiite-dominated south (the latter, with literally centuries of history). The Fadhila Party that dominates Basra is itself an off-shoot of the Sadrist trend that emerged after the assassination of Moqtada's father - just to give you a sense of its reach.
Thus, it is entirely unrealistic to believe, as the Bush administratoin apparently does, that the Sarist trend can be neutralized militarily, or marginalized through intra-Shiite political maneuvering. Despite recent gains made against Sadr's militia, Sadr's endgame involves exerting his considerable influence via the ballot box and through popular appeals. The US would be far better served by coming to grips with his clout and attempting to normalize relations with his movement, rather than trying to ignore it or adopt policies that amount to wishful thinking. If the US continues to target Sadr and his followers, in the end, such hostility will only harden anti-American attitudes, radicalize the Mahdist movement (and cause dangerous splinter groups to break off) and help weaken one of the truly nationalistic, anti-Iranian forces in Iraqi Shiite politics.
That last point, I would say, represents the other great misunderstanding about the Sadrist movement - its reputed ties to Iran. Actually, I'm not sure it's a misunderstanding as much as useful propaganda adopted by the Bush administration in order to further a political agenda (permanent bases, heavy foreign involvement in the oil industry) that Sadr opposes. In this, the Bush administration has made common cause with Iraqi political parties (ISCI/Dawa) that have much stronger ties to Iran than Sadr. But that is a rather inconvenient and awkward position, so instead of acknowledging the reality of the situation, we adopt a fictitious narrative. But there is a potential for self-fulfilling prophesy: in targeting and isolating Sadr, we are pushing him closer to Iran by denying him viable alternatives.
I haven't had the time to read Cockburn's book on Sadr yet, but I have read this extremely informative piece by Reidar Visser. Visser's work is a valuable tool in overcoming the ignorance surrounding Sadr and his movement that Filkins describes. I'll post an excerpt below the fold that touches on some of the issues mentioned above, but I highly recommend the entire piece.