Sadr Waiting in the Wings
This past weekend’s anti-American demonstrations in Baghdad speak to the growing influence of Muqtada al-Sadr as the Iraqi people become less tolerant of US occupation and influence. I will admit, the size of the protests was surprising. Of course, there’s disagreement on the exact number of protesters ranging from “tens of thousands” to
“>300,000, but, regardless, it shows that Sadr has retained influence and can call upon his supporters to stage events at whatever times he sees fit.
When Sadr was talked down by Ali Sistani in Najaf, it became obvious that the strategy had changed. The ultra-conservative, Wilayat al-Faqih Islamists loyal to the idea of an Iran-style mullahocracy in Iraq had shifted from force of arms to People Power. When Sadr decided to not place himself on the ballot as a part of the Shi’ite coalition (or any other grouping, for that matter), he set himself up as the one to keep the new Iraqi government in-line. He was outside the system, a system which a number of Iraqis found to be corrupt due to American influence, but still had a proverbial seat at the table. Similar to how Sistani was able to mobilize Shi’ite protests in order to get elections on the right (Shi’ite) track, Sadr has utilized his influence to pressure the new Iraqi government to move in the direction he wishes. Also, if the government in a year or more proves to be ineffective in stopping violence and correcting Iraq’s economic tailspin, Sadr will be in a perfect position to grab some sort of power after building up support through continued demonization of the United States; the Americans and those who cooperated with them would be targeted as the source of all Iraq’s problems and the people would respond in kind.
Of course, Sadr’s supporters are vastly outnumbered by the more moderate members of Iraq’s Shi’te community, so the Doomsday scenario is not set in stone. It is, however, a very real possibility if Jaafari is unable to bring about a consensus not only among the Shi’a, Kurds, and Sunni, but also within the Shi’ite community itself.