In several recent discussions of Iraq, I've expressed my ongoing perplexity over the Sadrist movement. Compared to most of the other actors in the Iraqi game, its discourse and behavior always strikes me as opaque. So I'm particularly interested in yet another first-rate report by the International Crisis Group: "Iraq's Civil War, the Sadrists and the Surge." Here's the conclusion:
The ceasefire largely has held and, together with bolstered U.S. and Iraqi military presence in Baghdad, helps account for a dramatic drop in violence. But the respite, although welcome, is both slightly misleading and exceedingly frail. Muqtada’s decision likely reflected a pragmatic calculation: that a halt in hostilities would help restore his credibility and allow him to reorganise his forces and wait out the U.S. presence. Their retreat notwithstanding, the Sadrists remain deeply entrenched and extremely powerful in a number of regions. Fleeing military pressure in Baghdad, Mahdi Army fighters redeployed to the south, thereby setting up the potential for an escalation of the class-based confrontation with the U.S.-backed ISCI.
Among Sadrist rank and file, impatience with the ceasefire is high and growing. They equate it with a loss of power and resources, believe the U.S. and ISCI are conspiring to weaken the movement and eagerly await Muqtada’s permission to resume the fight. The Sadrist leadership has resisted the pressure, but this may not last. Critics accuse Muqtada of passivity or worse, and he soon may conclude that the costs of his current strategy outweigh its benefits. In early February 2008, senior Sadrist officials called upon their leader not to prolong the ceasefire, due to expire later in the month.
The U.S. response – to continue attacking and arresting Sadrist militants, including some who are not militia members; arm a Shiite tribal counterforce in the south to roll back Sadrist territorial gains; and throw its lot in with Muqtada’s nemesis, ISCI – is understandable but short-sighted. The Sadrist movement, its present difficulties aside, remains a deeply entrenched, popular mass movement of young, poor and disenfranchised Shiites. It still controls key areas of the capital, as well as several southern cities; even now, its principal strongholds are virtually unassailable. Despite intensified U.S. military operations and stepped up Iraqi involvement, it is fanciful to expect the Mahdi Army’s defeat. Instead, heightened pressure is likely to trigger both fierce Sadrist resistance in Baghdad and an escalating intra-Shiite civil war in the south.
Muqtada’s motivations aside, his decision opens the possibility of a more genuine and lasting transformation of the Sadrist movement. In the months following his announcement, he sought to rid it of its most unruly members, rebuild a more disciplined and focused militia and restore his own respectability, while promoting core demands – notably, protecting the nation’s sovereignty by opposing the occupation – through legitimate parliamentary means. The challenge is to seize the current opportunity, seek to transform Muqtada’s tactical adjustment into a longer-term strategic shift and encourage the Sadrists’ evolution toward a strictly non-violent political actor.
Read the rest. I'll only say that after reading this subtle, complicated, and well-researched account of the Sadrist movements calculations and strategies I'm even more perplexed than before.