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Morning Report 8/30/05Sadr Days Ahead in Iraq


Moqtada pursues the same occupation, but with more vigor

Moqtada as poster child of protest

As Don Rumsfeld sounds more and more like Robert McNamara — the blustery, dogged, pre-“apology” McNamara — what the current secretary of defense says publicly about Iraq is increasingly irrelevant.

What Moqtada al-Sadr says, on the other hand, is increasingly important. Muckety-muck of the Mahdi militia, he’s been the bane of arrogant U.S. policymakers like Rumsfeld, Doug Feith, and Jerry Bremer. They’ve long ignored evidence that he’s consistently been more popular with Iraqis than various U.S. puppets like Ayad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi.

Anthony Shadid writes in a brilliant piece in this morning’s Washington Post that Sadr stands at the head of “a protest movement in a country with plenty to protest about.”

The country’s shattering into militias, as Lebanon once did.

What makes Shadid’s story so good is that he has humanized rebellious Iraqis. I don’t mean that he’s glorifying them, only that he’s delving into what makes them tick. The early days of war reporting in Iraq were filled with nothing but portraits of our soldiers fighting a faceless enemy. Now there are faces. Shadid’s story is a sharp profile and a history lesson, starting with this:

Hazem Araji‘s résumé reads like a story of Iraq’s recent past — and perhaps its near future.

In the tumult that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003, he hit the streets with a clique of fellow Shiite Muslim clerics to organize what became Iraq’s first postwar popular movement. Their symbol was Moqtada Sadr, a young, radical clergyman and son of a revered ayatollah. The next year, Araji emerged as the group’s public face, as it twice fought U.S. troops. He and others were arrested, and for nine months he languished in U.S. custody in Abu Ghraib prison, then at Camp Bucca.

Now, as the country enters a time as politically uncertain as any since the fall of President Saddam Hussein, Araji is a free man. So are a handful of Sadr’s other closest, most dynamic aides, men in their thirties who have helped shape the organization’s combustible mix of Iraqi and Arab nationalism, millenarian religious ideology, grass-roots protest and gun culture. With customary bravado, Araji and the others today are sending a message: They are ready to make up for lost time.

A little more than a year ago, Jerry of Arabia shut down Sadr’s newspaper and issued an arrest warrant. And then Bremer left Iraq with a whimper. Pin a medal on him. So George W. Bush did.

Much of the U.S. “strategy” regarding Sadr was foolish. Naomi Klein drew a fine portrait of that period in 2004 in her “Baghdad Year Zero” piece last year in Harper’s:

… I got word that there was a major demonstration outside the CPA headquarters. Supporters of the radical young cleric Moqtada al Sadr were protesting the closing of their newspaper, al Hawza, by military police. The CPA accused al Hawza of publishing “false articles” that could “pose the real threat of violence.” As an example, it cited an article that claimed Bremer “is pursuing a policy of starving the Iraqi people to make them preoccupied with procuring their daily bread so they do not have the chance to demand their political and individual freedoms.” To me it sounded less like hate literature than a concise summary of Milton Friedman’s recipe for shock therapy.

Two years after our invasion, our abrasive occupation is the only thing that Iraqis can agree on: They hate it. The level of their discontent — not we or our plans for belatedly training their troops — will determine the timetable for our departure.

Shadid weaves the personal stories of Sadr’s Mahdi movement people into the current combustible climate. The agitprop of the Bush regime doesn’t take into account the nuances of Iraq. Shadid does:

In a country whose sectarian and ethnic divides have relentlessly deepened, Sadr stands as a rare figure with support among both Sunnis and Shiites. At a protest Monday against Iraq’s new constitution in Tikrit, near Hussein’s home town, Sunnis held aloft pictures of the cleric. “Yes, yes to Sadr!” some of the 1,500 protesters shouted.

Ahead are difficult questions, namely about Sadr’s still-undeclared stance on the proposed constitution: Support could anger Sunni allies, but opposition might endanger his Shiite support. One aide hinted that Sadr may leave his position ambiguous. But for the moment, Sadr officials say they are reaping the benefits of their position as a protest movement in a country with plenty to protest about.

The Bush regime, fearing a fragging, has retreated to its bunker, emerging only to talk to troops and other friendly audiences.

Yesterday, for example, Rumsfeld was at Fort Irwin, California, talking to soldiers in training for desert warfare. Sergeant Sara Wood, one of the Pentagon’s permanently embedded reporters, writes this morning:

Every war has had critics who say it’s the wrong place, wrong time or wrong fight, Rumsfeld said, but in every instance, those people have been wrong. The U.S. does not go to war lightly, and the fight against terrorists is one that this country will see through, he said.

“People who want to toss in the towel were wrong yesterday, they’re wrong today, and they’ll be wrong tomorrow,” he said.

I told you that Rumsfeld sounds like the old McNamara.

Through this crucial period, the Democrats are missing in action — Hillary Clinton‘s showing her true colors as a hawk. So it’s up to moderate Republicans like Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to call the war for what it is: a debacle.

The mostly somnolent New York Times still runs predictably establishmentarian stories from Iraq, for the most part. But back in the arts-fartsy pages, Frank Rich is regularly splenetic. On August 28, in “The Vietnamization of Bush’s Vacation,” Rich wrote:

Mr. Bush’s current definition — “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down” — could not be a better formula for quagmire.

While Bremer is back home in America writing his memoirs, it’s Sadr who’s standing up. We never could make him stand down.

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