An Undramatic Departure Iraq's Strongman Keeps his Options Open

Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr is withdrawing his ministers from the country's cabinet. Does this spell the end of the government -- and of his own political career? Not at all. Sadr enjoys enormous support and is a flexible politician.

By in Dubai

Moqtada al-Sadr: anti-American, but pragmatic

Moqtada al-Sadr: anti-American, but pragmatic

No one in postwar Iraq has so many and such succinctly worded labels as Muqtada al-Sadr, "Iraq's most dangerous man." Some call him the tribune of the Iraqi mobs, Iran's vicarious agent, or a nefarious Shiite leader with a tendency to have his adversaries murdered. To his admirers Sadr is a great tactician who has managed to reinvent himself as a politician, while detractors see him as nothing but an immature, helpless militia leader whose troops are abandoning him.

None of these assessments is truly backed up by facts, nor have any of the premature swan songs been confirmed. On Monday, Sadr announced the withdrawal of his six ministers from the Iraqi government. What does Sadr's latest maneuver tell us about the motives of one of the most important political figures in postwar Iraq, and how will it affect the bleak situation in Baghdad?

First of all, it was no dramatic departure. He was withdrawing his ministers "for the public good," said Nasser al-Rubaie, the head of the group of legislators who support Sadr in parliament. The ministers, Rubaie said, were returning their posts to the government in the hope that it would fill them with qualified technocrats. This is the kind of rhetoric business executives use when resigning their positions on a company's board of directors, not the kind of language one uses to bring down a government. Sadr's step is also half-hearted in another respect: His 30 members of parliament retained their seats and remained part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition government. Only the ministers -- six men, none of them known as competent politicians -- are leaving, and no one is exactly sad to see them go.

Against the Americans

There were likely two motives behind Sadr's decision. He mentioned the first one himself: He is dissatisfied with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his refusal to name a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Sadr, who makes no secret of his anti-Americanism, has always been unambiguous on this issue. The Sadrists had already "suspended" their cooperation last November after Maliki met with US President George W. Bush in Amman, Jordan, where the two men agreed on a new security offensive.

None of Maliki's measures is as unpopular among Sadr's supporters as this security offensive. Why, they ask, does our government join forces with the Americans to attack our own militia, the Mahdi Army, instead of putting an end to the terrorist attacks by the Sunni al-Qaida? This sentiment, shared by all Shiites, is especially prevalent among Sadr's supporters, which points to a second, more powerful motive: Sadr himself put Maliki in power a year ago, his Mahdi Army serving essentially as a paramilitary wing for Maliki, a politician without a militia of his own.

Sadr himself has gone underground, and he has made it clear to his militia leaders that they too would be wise to avoid a conflict with the Americans. The question Sadr will face from his own supporters is why they must hide as their government cooperates with the Americans? This is the reason he has withdrawn his ministers.

Trading the Mahdi Army for the US Army

The balance of power in Baghdad has in fact shifted since Maliki took office. The prime minister no longer depends on the goodwill of Muqtada al-Sadr. When the security offensive began in February, Maliki essentially traded one militia for another -- the Mahdi Army for the US Army. George W. Bush has placed all of his bets on Maliki, and this alliance will hold up, at least until the US Congress foils Bush's Iraq plans or Maliki loses the support of the majority in Baghdad. But this is unlikely to happen, with both the Americans and Iraq's Shiite clerics standing behind Maliki.

Does this mean that the withdrawal of his ministers spells the beginning of the end of Muqtada al-Sadr's political career? Certainly not, because Sadr -- as a rally by hundreds of thousands of his supporters in Najaf last week demonstrated -- still has a broad base of support, probably the broadest of all political leaders in postwar Iraq. Besides, Sadr is a flexible politician and not a fanatic like al-Qaida leaders, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed last June. In April 2004 Sadr, the Shiite leader, supported the Sunni uprising against the US Army in Fallujah, in December 2005 he took part in the elections and in last week's anti-American rally he ordered his supporters to take to the streets carrying nothing but Iraqi flags -- and not portraits of himself, which could frighten off nationalist Sunnis.

Muqtada al-Sadr is billing himself as a Shiite Iraqi nationalist -- as someone who opposes the Americans but is also against his fellow Shiites' demands for secession of the Shiite south. Although he is far from being in control of all his cohorts and perhaps even tolerates their incendiary acts, he remains true, at least in his speeches, to a phrase coined by his father-in-law, Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr: "I am for you, my son -- whether you are a Shiite or a Sunni, a Kurd or an Arab."

Unless he, like so many in his family, falls victim to an assassination, Muqtada al-Sadr will remain a decisive figure in Iraq. "One can do business with him," the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was murdered in 2005, once said about Lebanese Shiite leader Hassan Nasrallah. Iraqi politicians are quietly saying similar things about Sadr. It is quite possible that the withdrawal of his ministers could be part of doing business with Sadr. Prime Minister Maliki, at least, welcomed the step by "His Eminence Muqtada al-Sadr." As usual in the Middle East, it will take a while before it becomes apparent whether the deal was worth it -- and who benefited from it.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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