Tuesday, December 11, 2007
New & Improved
It's funny. Every six months or so, there comes a moment when, thinking about the situation in Iraq, I say to myself, 'We haven't heard much about Moqtada al-Sadr lately. I wonder if this time he's really out of the game for good.' Systematically, no sooner do I get done formulating the thought than an article immediately appears explaining that Moqtada al-Sadr is busy gearing up to get back into the game. And wouldn't you know it, this time is no different:
Away from public view, however, Sadr's top aides say the anti-American cleric is anything but idle. Instead, he is orchestrating a revival among his army of loyalists entrenched in Baghdad and Shiite enclaves to the south -- from the religious centers of Karbala and Najaf to the economic hub of Basra. What is in the making, they say, is a better-trained and leaner force free of rogue elements accused of atrocities and crimes during the height of the sectarian war last year.
Many analysts say what may reemerge is an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hizbullah -- a state within a state that embraces politics while maintaining a separate military and social structure that holds powerful sway at home and in the region.
Now, obviously, claims about a "new & improved" Mahdi Army that come from Sadr's top aides should be taken with a grain of salt. As an analyst quoted in the article points out, "The Mahdi Army is far from being the organized fighting machine like Hizbullah." What's more, according to a DoD intelligence analyst based in Baghdad, Sadr's recent unilateral ceasefire has served him well and is in no danger of unraveling.
More significant is what the article says about Iran, namely that it's been hedging its bets by supporting various rival Shiite militias in Iraq, including the Mahdi Army. Which means that when the dust clears in Basra, Tehran stands to gain an ally no matter who comes out on top.