Monday, November 27, 2006
I got a heart, I got a mind, but I can't keep both in time:
If it was possible, I'd recommend that the U.S. hire Moqtada Sadr as a special reconstruction envoy to any country that we end up occupying in the next 20 years. It's been clear for years now that what the Mahdi Army has done in Sadr City is everything that the better angels of our nature told us we should have done in Iraq writ large: soldiers doing windows, basically -- sanitation, security, job creation, community relations -- with the added advantage of being anti-occupation Shiite Iraqis catering to anti-occupation Shiite Iraqis. This Washington Post piece about the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army is the best piece I've read from Iraq all year. Some choice excerpts:

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, [Ayad] Fartoosi has been a militiaman with the Shiite Muslim Mahdi Army of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Last week, he also served as a relief worker, a policeman, a traffic controller and a guard.

So did thousands of his militia comrades who mobilized to assist victims of the deadliest attack on Iraqis since the invasion, highlighting the power associated with the Mahdi Army's less-publicized roles in Iraqi society.

"We do even more than what the government should do," said Fartoosi, 21, as he recalled the eight grueling hours after a barrage of car bombs, mortars and missiles killed more than 200 people in Baghdad's Shiite heartland.

[snip]

"Maliki, we know, is under pressure from the Americans," said Kareem Hendul, a Sadr official. "But he should realize who brought him to the chair of government. We brought him to power."

[snip]

The Mahdi Army's response to the bombings suggests that diplomatic pressure alone will not be enough to dismantle the militias. As long as Iraq's security forces are ineffective and the government and its U.S. patrons are unable to provide basic services and jobs, Sadr and his army are vital to Shiites.

Sadr is widely believed to be modeling his movement after Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which has both an armed and a political wing and provides social services to its followers.

"It has proved there is no need to disarm the Mahdi Army," Salim Faisal Abid, 36, a Sadr City resident, said Friday. "If they were not there yesterday, it would have been a disaster."

[snip]

"It is not possible to disarm the Mahdi Army because these weapons we are using are to defend the innocent people and not to kill the innocent, to help the persecuted people against the persecutors," [Fartoosi] said. "I would not hand over my gun to Maliki, or to that damned Bush, even if they ask me to."

Music to James Kurth's ears! Seriously now, Sadr needs to be a case study at Fort Leavenworth and the Naval Postgraduate School. Future generations of military leaders, who are going to have to consider the aftermath of occupying foreign countries, should remember how Sadr became the strongest Shiite political figure there is: he immediately began providing for the most desperate Shiite slum in Baghdad, struck an ardently anti-occupation pose that blended religious fervor with the rhetoric of national unity, and formed an army that did what the occupier couldn't in terms of providing security. If you lived in Sadr City, and you heard the government talking about disarming the Mahdi Army, you would read this as the collaborators' attempt to leave you vulnerable so the Americans can crush you.

Anthony Shadid's excellent Night Draws Near perfectly documented how Sadr kept his peoples' bellies full, their children safe, and gave them something to believe in -- himself. Always remember, he did this after being a minor-grade cleric with a famous last name who declared a government in 2003 that no one saluted.

But here's the real lesson about Sadr. It's tempting to believe that had we just been super-awesome occupiers, doing all the stuff that the Mahdi Army did, we could have marginalized Sadr. My guess is that we could have forestalled his rise, and that's not nothing. But super-awesome occupiers are still occupiers, meaning the one thing we could never give Iraqis is a reason to believe in us, no matter whatever niceties about democracy we spewed. Sadr's attention to material issues earns him an audience, but his political charisma is based on a heady brew of Iraqi historical memory, Shiite fervor, and us. If ever Sadr could lecture at West Point, I suspect he'd say the same thing -- that as long as we go forth to occupy Muslim countries, there will be one, two, many Moqtada Sadrs ready to destroy our imperial ambitions.


--Spencer Ackerman
Where's the money coming from? Who is Moqtada shaking down? Or is he working for Iran?
Blogger Chris M. | 3:58 PM