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We’re Now in Stupid Land

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From the New York Times:

Iraqis Consider Ways to Reduce Power of Cleric 

By EDWARD WONG

BAGHDAD, Dec. 11 – After discussions with the Bush administration, several of Iraq's major political parties are in talks to form a coalition whose aim is to break the powerful influence of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr within the government, senior Iraqi officials say.

The talks are taking place among the two main Kurdish groups, the most influential Sunni Arab party and an Iranian-backed Shiite party that has long sought to lead the government. They have invited Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to join them. But Mr. Maliki, a conservative Shiite who has close ties to Mr. Sadr, has held back for fear that the parties might be seeking to oust him, a Shiite legislator close to Mr. Maliki said.

Officials involved in the talks say their aim is not to undermine Mr. Maliki, but to isolate Mr. Sadr as well as firebrand Sunni Arab politicians inside the government. Mr. Sadr controls a militia with an estimated 60,000 fighters that has rebelled twice against the American military and is accused of widening the sectarian war with reprisal killings of Sunni Arabs.

The Americans, frustrated with Mr. Maliki's political dependence on Mr. Sadr, appear to be working hard to help build the new coalition. President Bush met last week in the White House with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Iranian-backed Shiite party, and is to meet on Tuesday with Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Sunni Arab party. In late November, Mr. Bush and his top aides met with leaders from Sunni countries in the Middle East to urge them to press moderate Sunni Arab Iraqis to support Mr. Maliki.

The White House visits by Mr. Hakim and Mr. Hashemi are directly related to their effort to form a new alliance, a senior Iraqi official said.

Last month, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, wrote in a classified memo that the Americans should press Sunni Arab and Shiite leaders, especially Mr. Hakim, to support Mr. Maliki if he sought to build "an alternative political base." The memo noted that Americans could provide "monetary support to moderate groups."
………………………………

Any plan to form a political alliance across sectarian lines that isolates Mr. Sadr and Sunni Arab extremists carries enormous risks. American and Iraqi officials have worked to try to persuade Mr. Sadr to use political power instead of force of arms to effect change. Though it is unclear whether Mr. Sadr has total control over his militia, if he thinks he is being marginalized within the government, he could ignite another rebellion like the two he led in 2004.

Some senior American commanders say that the efforts to make peace with Mr. Sadr through politics may have failed, and that a military assault on Sadr strongholds may be inevitable.

Falah Shanshal, a legislator aligned with Mr. Sadr, on Monday denounced the idea of a new coalition. "We're against any new bloc, new front or new alliance," he said. "We have to make unity between us, to be one front against terrorism and to liberate the country from the occupation."

Iraqi officials say that the other main risk is a potential backlash against the parties involved in the talks from other leaders in their own ethnic or sectarian populations.

For Mr. Hakim and Mr. Maliki, any bid to join Sunni Arabs in an alliance against Mr. Sadr could invoke the wrath of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq. Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the ayatollah has worked hard to bring various feuding Shiite factions into one greater Shiite coalition to rule Iraq. That coalition, including Mr. Sadr's allies, is the dominant bloc in the 275-member Parliament.

Mr. Hashemi, the Sunni Arab leader, risks alienating other members of the main Sunni bloc in Parliament. Sunni Arab insurgents could also decide to step up violence against Mr. Hashemi and his Iraqi Islamic Party. Three of Mr. Hashemi's siblings have already been killed.

We're now in stupid land.

Sadr once had about 10,000 members of the Mahdi Army. Now he has US trained and armed members.

A lot of people still have no respect for Sadr, they call him crazy, or a pain, anything but the most powerful politician in Iraq. Because this is who he is.

Why?

A couple of weeks ago, he went into the US funded state TV station and took it over, doing two hours of live remotes from Sadr City, where they denounced the government. Someone rolled up into the Higher Education ministry and kidnapped a couple of dozen people.

And it wasn't Hakim and his Badr Organization.

It is late in the day to be talking about rolling up and isolating Sadr as if the Madhi Army wasn't taking over Baghdad block by block. But what is so insanely reckless is that the people doing it are running to Washington for permission. Not even realizing that Sadr's strongest appeal is his impecable nationalist credentials.

When his father was killed by Saddam in 1999, agents came to pay him off. Sadr refused to shake his hand and rejected the money, knowing it was a death sentence. One of his aides made nice, took the money and saved his life.

He has been making one consistent nationalist argument, which is the Americans have to leave, since 2003. He has fought them since 2004.

The idea of the US attacking Sadr is desperately insane. It is a serious question if Iraqi units wouldn't quit or turn on US forces if ordered to turn on their families. But it now means the US has two enemies, the Sunni resistance and the Sadrists. Which is not going to result in any kind of victory, but could undo what government is there and leave Sadr the unquestioned master of Iraq.

It's 2006, it's late to be picking sides in Iraq, and the outcome can only be bad.

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Steve Gilliard

Steve Gilliard

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