A Good Comment
By Patrick Cockburn
".....He has now become part of the White House's demonology in Iraq. At one time the US believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for all its problems in Iraq - problems that would be resolved once he was overthrown. Today Sadr, a 32-year-old cleric in his black robe with fierce, staring, dark eyes, is denounced as the fomenter of sectarian warfare.
Many Iraqi leaders never leave the Green Zone. Sadr has never entered it. He has a cult-like following. He controls Sadr City, the ramshackle, sprawling slum in east Baghdad which is home to two-and-a-half million Shia, important cities such as Kufa and provinces such as Maysan. He can probably put 100,000 armed militiamen into the field. Much of the Baghdad police force follows him. Army barracks where Shia units are stationed have pictures of him pinned to the walls.
Once in 2004 he was wanted "dead or alive" by the US forces and dismissed as "a firebrand". They soon found that his movement had deep roots. He controls 32 out of 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament. He is the most important ally of the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. In 2004, the US and its former exile allies paid a heavy price for trying to exclude him from power. In 2005 and 2006, they recognised his strength. He became part of the political process in Iraq while opposing the US-led occupation.
Now, astonishingly the US may be about to confront Sadr and his powerful social and political movement. This could lead almost immediately to a crisis for the US and President Bush's new strategy for Iraq.
If the US Army, along with Kurdish brigades of the Iraqi army, do assault Sadr City, they are unlikely to win a clean victory. The rest of Shia Iraq is likely to explode. A confrontation will convince many Shia that the US never intends to let them rule Iraq despite their success in the elections. The US is already at war with the five million-strong Sunni community and is now fast alienating the Shia. For the first time this year, polls showed that a majority of Shia approve of armed attacks on US-led forces.
An offensive against Sadr's Mehdi Army will be portrayed as an attempt to eliminate militias. But it is, in reality, an attack on one particular militia, because it is anti-American. The Kurdish brigades in the Iraqi army take their orders from the Kurdish leaders and not from Maliki. The US also has good relations with the other Shia militia, the Badr Organisation, which is the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
There is no doubt that the Mehdi Army includes death squads targeting Sunni - but this is also true of Badr.
.....Muqtada al-Sadr became so powerful so fast because he was in the same tradition as his relatives. His militiamen are generally not paid and supply their own weapons. They are beginning to have a core of trained, paid professionals but they were never as militarily effective as the Sunni insurgents, many of whom were experienced soldiers.
A US attack on Sadr will open another front in the war in Iraq. It would split the Shia coalition into pro- and anti-American factions. It would disrupt the Shia-Kurdish alliance. It probably would not conciliate the Sunni insurgents.
Sadr's movement thrives on martyrs. The only certain result of an all-out US assault on the Mehdi Army would be to deepen and widen the war in Iraq."