Muqtada al-Sadr: the white clothing indicates that he expects martyrdom and is prepared for it
Patrick Cockburn, author of a new book on Iraqi Shi'a leader Muqtada al-Sadr, describes him in this article, Warlord: The Rise of Muqtada al-SadrIndependent 04/11/08, which is an excerpt from the book.
Cockburn's Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq was released this month. It's a "life and times" biography of the Iraqi Shi'a leader that gives some very helpful background on the recent history of the Iraqi Shi'a and their relationships to Iran.
In the LA Times piece, Cockburn talks about the recent attempt by Al-Maliki's government to crack down on JAM (Muqtada's Mahdi Army):
The [I]raqi government has decided that the moment has come to crush the Mahdi Army and the followers of Muqtada Sadr once and for all. Despite its failure to eliminate his militiamen in Basra at the end of March, the government, with American backing, is determined to try again, according to senior Iraqi officials.
It is a dangerous strategy for both Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and the U.S. Sadr remains one of the most powerful and revered leaders of the Shiite community -- and the Shiites make up 60% of Iraq. What's more, the 34-year-old Sadr is not exactly the mercurial "firebrand" or "renegade" cleric portrayed by journalistic cliche-mongers; rather, he has repeatedly shown himself to be a cautious and experienced political operator. (my emphasis)
His book offers a plausible explanation for this disconnect in the standard perception of Muqtada's capabilities. His father was an important Shi'a political leader, who was murdered along with Muqtada's brothers under Saddam. Muqtada was the youngest son. Cockburn suggests that he deliberately created a public reputation for himself as not especially capable as a leader in order to be able to survive inside Iraq.
But he has clearly shown since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that he is a shrewd political operator and a capable leader. The fact that he's a leader of death squads who have committed terrible atrocities is something no one should forget. But he's not simply a hothead or a figurehead for his movement. Cockburn continues in the LA Times article:
What makes Sadr different from other Shiite leaders, and gives him credibility among the Shiite masses, is that he opposed the U.S. occupation from the beginning. When the U.S. invasion overthrew Hussein, Sadr said that "the big snake has succeeded the small snake." He pulled his followers out of the Iraqi government in 2006 because Maliki would not condemn the occupation. He also became increasingly reliant on Iran in the face of U.S. hostility.
The once impressive political unity of the Shiite community is now collapsing. Maliki (who is a Shiite) and his small Dawa Party, along with his main ally, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, believe that they can isolate the Sadrists and, with American help, marginalize them before the October provincial elections in which the Sadrists were expected to do well. The long rivalry of the Sadr family and the Hakim family (the founders of the Supreme Islamic Council in 1982) has once again exploded. The U.S. may come to regret taking sides against the Sadrists in this intra-Shiite feud. (my emphasis)
Iran is clearly supporting both the Sadrist JAM as well as the governmental Shi'a party's, primarily the SIIC (formerly SCIRI), which is the main governmental party and the partner of the also-savage Badr Brigade militia, although Al-Maliki himself is associated with the Dawa Party.
Cockburn says of the current moment in Iraq:
Ever since the battles for Najaf four years ago, Sadr has tried to avoid direct military confrontation with U.S. military forces. He has agreed to truces and cease-fires, and two weeks ago, he even called his militiamen off the streets in Baghdad and Basra when they seemed to be winning.
But for the Iraqi government, those clashes were only the first round in a battle to crush the Sadrists as a political and military force. Going by past experience, Sadr will try to arrange a compromise to avoid the destruction of his movement. But if he is forced to fight, the U.S. will face a whole new front in the war in Iraq.
The fact that Sadr's JAM militia mostly held back from attacks against Americans during The Surge helped the escalation to show a decrease in violence by the end of 2007. Surge partisans can even argue with some plasibility that JAM's stand-down during that period was in response to the surge.
But focusing too much on momentary talking points can hide the meaningful trends. It make good strategic sense in 2007 for JAM to let the US and its new Sunni friends in the Awakening Councils fight the nastiest of the Sunni extremists, "Al Qa'ida", as the administration and the generals like to call them. But except for the wilfully delusional (Fred Kagan, for instance), the fight over Basra, Baghdad and other cities in the south showed the political strength and improving military performance of Muqtada's movement.
This article, U.S. Cites Planning Gaps in Iraqi Assault on Basra by Michael Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Stephen Farrell New York Times 04/03/08, shows the US trying to distance itself from Maliki's assault on Basra, which proved to be a military and political disaster for the Shi'a government in the Green Zone. Note that the reporter listed first is Judith Miller accomplice Michael Gordon, who can usually be relied upon to give the Pentagon's preferred version without much pretense of journalistic vetting. I approach news articles with Gordon in the by-line the same way I approach Pentagon PR releases from Defense Department Web sites.