Thursday, March 22, 2007

Good news today from Iraq....Mookie and the Mahdi Army on the run

Damn...I knew I shouldn't have gone on vacation!

The US appears to be working - successfully - on splintering Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and al-Sadr's political bloc.

Al Sadr has finally come out (from a safe distance, back in Iran) calling for his followers to oppose US presence in Sadr City.

During Friday prayers, one of Sadr's clerics read a statement from Mookie urging his followers to oppose the US forces in their neighborhood. "I trust that you have taken them as your enemies, for the enemies of God are your enemies, inevitably... unity against your enemy and shout 'No, No, America! No, No Israel!, No, No Satan!'"

There was a demo after prayers, with an estimated one thousand people chanting "No, no to America. No, no to Israel. No, no to Satan." Since Sadr City has an estimated 2 million residents living there, that's a relatively small turnout, and obviously a case of too little, too late.

Al -Sadr's original plan seems to have been to simply wait out the surge quietly, trusting that Maliki needed his political muscle and that things would be under al-Sadr's control after the US pulled out. Instead, al -Sadr appears to be losing his grip on the Mahdi Army since he went to Iran.

The Army is splintering,with some elements dealing with the Maliki government and others going further off and becoming more hardline.

There also appears to be a backlash against al-Sadr ordering his forces not to oppose the Americans.There are over 3,000 Mahdi Army fighters who are now being armed and controlled directly by Iran and no longer consider themselves under Moqtada al-Sadr's orders. They're reportedly led by Qais al-Khazaal, an ex-aide of Mookie's, and crossed into Iran for training by the elite Quds force. And there are probably many more Mahdi Army members who have fled over the borders to Iran to avoid being `detained'.

In another sign of a major effort to splinter al-Sadr's political bloc, the U.S. has released Sheik Ahmed Abady al Shaibani, a major figure in Sadr's Mahdi Army who had been in detention for over two years. Shaibani was released into the custody of the Iraqi Prime Minster. he could be being set up as an alternative figure figure that some of al-Sadr's parliamentary allies could coalesce behind to reconcile with the Maliki government.

Obviously, negotiations are going on with elements of the Mahdi Army to break with al-Sadr and Iran...most likely utilizing US financed baksheesh. And as long as al-Sadr stays out of the country, the better the chances of outbidding him for his followers' loyalty.

And it just might not be possible for al-Sadr to return anytime soon. The Maliki government has an arrest warrant pending for Mookie for the murder of pro-US Shiite cleric Majid al-Khoei, who was knifed to death by a mob outside of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. Sadr was charged with ordering the murder of Khoei by an Iraqi court in 2003, but the government never executed the arrest warrant.

General Petraeus deserves an enormous amount of credit for an outstanding job of playing good cop bad, cop with the Mahdi Army, stabilizing the country and making a graceful US departure more feasible.

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