Politics & Policy

Sinking Sadr

Getting at the source.

Eventually, we learned a lesson from Fallujah. It is the same lesson illustrated by American freelance writer Steven Vincent’s death.

After the four American contractors were burned and hung from that bridge in Fallujah in April of 2004, we took a step back. Perhaps afraid that we would be perceived as retaliating in anger, we waited and tried to let that problem solve itself.

It didn’t. Fallujah, already a dangerous nest for the Sunni insurgency, metastasized into a city of terror, a base from which Baathist and al Qaeda butchers launched their war on Americans and on the people of Iraq.

The Iraqi forces that were supposed to keep a lid on Fallujah were subverted and the honest ones murdered, and Fallujah’s citizens were subjected to a nightmarish Taliban-style regime. One rebel told reporter Hannah Allam: “When the Marines stepped back in April, the foreigners grew stronger, so they persuaded their friends to come and help them hold the victory.”

Finally Fallujah became a problem we could no longer ignore. In November, our Marines surrounded the city and in vicious, house-to-house fighting, crushed the insurgency amid their fortified mosques and bomb factories and torture chambers. About 1200 of the enemy were killed, at a terrible cost of 51 Marines and eight Iraqi troops.

What have we learned from Fallujah? If nothing else, we’ve seen that evil unchallenged only grows stronger. Writing for the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine Proceedings, analyst Jonathan Keiler concluded that “Operation al-Fajr (the November assault) weakened the Iraqi insurgency, but it came too late and too temperately to have broken the insurgency’s back, despite the claims of some U.S. officers.”

Now another atrocity has occurred, and a similar pattern emerges. Journalist Steven Vincent was murdered earlier this month in Basra, after writing an exposé of the corruption of Basra’s police and the growing influence of Shiite fanaticism. He was killed, many have surmised, because he told the truth about the unchecked power of Shiite radicals–in particular, the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.

As with last April’s desecration at Fallujah, Vincent’s murder should come as no surprise. We have had more than enough warning about Sadr’s minions. Soon after Baghdad fell, moderate pro-Western Ayatollah Khoei was dragged from his mosque by a Sadrite lynch mob and slaughtered in the street. Sadr, the alleged mastermind, had an arrest warrant issued against him for the murder of Al-Khoei.

Not long after, Sadr was implicated in a massacre in the gypsy village of Qawliya. His Mahdi army tried to abduct a woman accused of prostitution in order to try her in Sadr’s kangaroo religious court. When the men of the town resisted, 20 were killed and the town nearly leveled with machine guns, mortars, and RPGs, after which the survivors were beaten and tortured.

Sadr’s victims are not only his fellow Iraqis. The Mahdi army often attacks Coalition forces, on one occasion turning a Sadr City marketplace into a “300-meter-long-kill-zone” in a battle that claimed the life of Sgt. Yihjyh (Eddie) Chen. Many more Americans have died fighting his goons in Najaf and Karbala.

Sadr is accused of being a pawn of Tehran’s mullahs as well, helping them subvert the progress of Iraqi democracy. If military action is taken against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Sadr’s Al-Mahdi militia could counterattack within Iraq.

One can only imagine how the restive Sunnis in central Iraq fear the prospect of Sadr’s growing influence. Why would they support a new Iraqi government that, favoring the Shiite majority as it must, might eventually make Sadr their de facto ruler?

I have never yet heard a satisfactory explanation for leaving this thug free to incite terror and chaos. Does anyone seriously believe Sadr has somehow become one of the good guys? Paul Bremer vowed Sadr would be captured. Several warrants have been issued for his arrest, yet he still preaches and plots with impunity. If there was some misplaced hope that the Sadr problem would be taken care of by Iraqi police, as we naively hoped would happen at Fallujah, those hopes have been dashed by Vincent’s death.

“Let the Iraqis kill [Sadr],” urged retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney in April 2004, even as we were deciding to let the Iraqis handle Fallujah. “We should not kill him, but we may have to. He’s trying to create an uprising.” But why would Sadr create an uprising now, when so much power is already his to lose? American troops are currently focused on routing his enemies, the Baathists and Sunni insurgents. Better for him to lay low and hide below our radar as he consolidates his control. Unless, of course, someone like Vincent shines a light on him.

One of Vincent’s final articles may give one clue as to why we have tolerated Sadr’s machinations for so long. In explaining Britain’s reluctance even to teach any sort of human rights or democratic theory to the Basra police force, he writes:

Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society. Nor did I see anyone question the alarming number of religious posters on the walls of Basran police stations. When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighborhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate.

Perhaps not, but Britain has been undergoing some reevaluation of its relationship to terrorists since the bombings of 7/7. The murder of a prominent American journalist may just “switch them on”, to use Vincent’s phrase, to how far out of their control Basra has slipped.

This problem is much bigger than Basra, however. Fish stinks from the head, and Vincent’s work shows us how far Moqtada Al-Sadr’s influence has undermined our work throughout Iraq. When American forces leave Iraq, Sadr may just rule instead of Saddam.

Whether or not Sadr was involved directly in Vincent’s death, it is an outrage that his malevolent influence on Iraqi politics is still tolerated. The arrest warrants have been signed. Why is this man still walking around?

Clinton W. Taylor is a lawyer and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Stanford.

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