Spinning Mookie

Al-Sadr is not as big a deal in Iraq as the U.S. press makes him out to be

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Few foreign leaders have received as favorable news coverage in the United States as has Moqtada al-Sadr, with less factual basis for it.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1476).

Mookie, as our troops call him, is the nominal head of the Mahdi Army, a radical Shiite militia, and of the Sadrist political movement, which holds 30 seats (of 275) in the Iraqi parliament.

The Mahdi Army is more a loose alliance of criminal gangs than a guerrilla force, and it is unclear how much authority Mookie has ever actually exercised over it. But it's clear that Iran -- where Mookie has been hiding out -- is pulling the strings now.

The Iranians raised Mookie from relative obscurity in 2004 because they had doubts about the reliability of their primary proxy in Iraq, the Badr Brigades and their leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim. The son of a leading Shiite cleric, Mr. Hakim took refuge in Iran in 1980 from Saddam Hussein's wrath. He became a member of the government after Saddam's fall.

"The Hakims had become too invested in, and integrated within the Iraqi state -- their revenues from contracts and trade earned inside Iraq exceeded the overall budget of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which had funded them previously -- and could not be counted on to act as Iran's agents of disorder," wrote Nibras Kazimi in the New York Sun.

"Whereas the Hakims turned independent as they didn't need Iran anymore, the Sadrists were desperate for arms and training, and Iran was more than willing to accommodate them," said Mr. Kazimi, an Iraqi who is a resident scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

Mookie was the logical choice for figurehead because his father, the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, was Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric when he was murdered by Saddam in 1999. Iran provided the Mahdi Army with money, arms and military training.

The last couple of months have been dreadful for Mookie everywhere except on the pages of American newspapers and magazines.

On March 25, the Iraqi Army began an offensive against the Mahdi Army in the port city of Basra. After a faltering start, Iraqi soldiers and police took control of the city, to the great joy of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants. This was an embarrassment for some American journalists, who had declared the operations in Basra a "catastrophe" for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

When Operation Knights' Charge began in Basra, violence erupted in the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, but the Mahdi Army was routed quickly.

With southern Iraq secure, Prime Minister Maliki moved against Mr. Sadr politically. On April 7, all of Iraq's other political parties joined Mr. Maliki in declaring that the Sadrists would not be permitted to compete in provincial elections unless Mookie disarmed his militia.

When Mookie equivocated, Iraqi and U.S. forces began military operations against the Mahdi Army's stronghold of Sadr City, a sprawling slum in northeast Baghdad. U.S. engineers are walling off the southern third of Sadr City, which, when completed, will make it all but impossible for the Mahdists to fire rockets and mortars into the Green Zone because they will be out of range, and more difficult for them to be resupplied with munitions from Iran. (At this writing, the wall is about 80 percent complete.)

The sporadic fighting has gone badly for the Mahdi Army, which has lost nearly 600 men in Sadr City. This is why Mookie agreed to a conditional surrender on May 10. The Mahdi Army will cease all attacks. Iraqi government forces can enter Sadr City to serve arrest warrants and seize medium and heavy weapons, though the Sadrists may keep their small arms.

If the terms are lived up to, the Mahdi Army will have lost its last stronghold in Iraq. But in an amazing reprise of the bogus Basra narrative, some journalists described this conditional surrender as a victory for Mookie.

"Al-Sadr wins another round," said Mark Kukis of Time Magazine. Mookie "is still controlling the agenda tactically and politically," he said.

A more cautious Alissa Rubin of The New York Times said it was "not clear who won," though the Iraqis she quotes make it clear Mookie didn't.

"They are suffering a lot of losses and defeats, and they are politically isolated," said Jalaluddin al-Sagheer, a member of parliament.

Their datelines say "Baghdad." But they may as well have been writing from another planet.



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