Nationalist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s bid to unite Sunnis and Shi’ites on the basis of a common demand for withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces, reported last weekend by the Washington Post‘s Sudarsan Raghavan, seems likely to get a positive response from Sunni armed resistance.
An account given Pentagon officials by a military officer recently returned from Iraq suggests that Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, who have generally reflected the views of the Sunni armed resistance there, are open to working with Sadr.
According to Raghavan’s report on May 20, talks between Sadr’s representatives and Sunni leaders, including leaders of Sunni armed resistance factions, first began in April. A commander of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Abu Aja Naemi, confirmed to Raghavan that his organization had been in discussions with Sadr’s representatives.
Sadr’s aides say he was encouraged to launch the new cross-sectarian initiative by the increasingly violent opposition from nationalist Sunni insurgents to the jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda. One of his top aides, Ahmed Shaibani, recalled that the George W. Bush administration was arguing that a timetable was unacceptable because of the danger of al-Qaeda taking advantage of a withdrawal. Shaibani told Raghavan that sectarian peace could be advanced if both Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Sunni insurgent groups could unite to weaken al-Qaeda.
Raghavan reports that the cross-sectarian united front strategy was facilitated by the fact that Shaibani had befriended members of Sunni nationalist insurgent groups while he was held in U.S. detention centers from 2004 through 2006. Now Shaibani, who heads a "reconciliation committee" for Sadr, is well positioned to gain the trust of those Sunni organizations.
The talks with Sunni resistance leaders have been coordinated with a series of other moves by Sadr since early February. Although many members of Sadr’s Mahdi Army have been involved in sectarian killings and intimidation of Sunnis in Baghdad, Sadr has taken what appears to be a decisive step to break with those in his movement who have been linked to sectarian violence. Over the past three months, he has expelled at least 600 men from the Mahdi Army who were accused of murder and other violations of Sadr’s policy, according to Raghavan.
The massive demonstration against the occupation mounted in Najaf by Sadr’s organization on Apr. 9, which Iraqi and foreign observers estimated at tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, was apparently timed to coincide with his initiative in opening talks with the Sunnis.
The demonstration not only showed that Sadr could mobilize crowds comparable to the largest ever seen in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, but also made clear Sadr’s commitment to transcending sectarian interests. The demonstrators carried Iraqi flags instead of pictures of Sadr or other Shi’ite symbols. It also included a small contingent of members of the Sunni-based Islamic Party of Iraq.
Sadr’s decision in mid-April to pull his representatives out of the al-Maliki government also appears to have been aimed in part at clearing the way for an agreement with the Sunni insurgents. Leaders of those organizations have said they would not accept the U.S.-sponsored government in any peace negotiations with the United States.
U.S. officials have been quietly trying to counter Sadr’s approach to the Sunni insurgents by discrediting him. Sadr went underground in February, fearing an attempt by U.S. forces to capture or kill him, and the U.S. official line on Sadr since then has been the persistent claim that he has left Iraq to take refuge in Iran. That appears to be an attempt to feed into Sunni suspicions of all Shi’ite leaders as agents of Iran.
Sadr’s aides have repeatedly denied that Sadr has left the country. The speed with which Sadr’s strategy has unfolded in recent months suggests that he has remained in close contact with his organization Relying on electronic communication with Sadr outside Iraq would be highly risky, given the well-known capability of U.S. intelligence to intercept any such calls.
U.S. officials have long argued that an early withdrawal of U.S. forces would leave Sunnis vulnerable to the Shi’ite security forces and militias. Media reporting in recent months has portrayed Sunni leaders as not wanting a U.S. military withdrawal any time soon, because of their fear of Shi’ite repression in the absence of the U.S. troop presence.
But a Navy Seal special operations officer recently returned from eight months in Anbar province, who discussed the situation there with high-ranking Pentagon officials at the end of April, suggests that that the views of Sunni leaders are quite compatible with those of Sadr. A source familiar with the officer’s account said the Sunni Sheiks in Anbar have been telling U.S. commanders that the United States must withdraw its troops, and that the Sunnis know how to handle both al-Qaeda and the Shi’ites.
The officer also reported that Sunni tribal sheiks have explicitly disavowed the notion that Sadr is a pawn of the Iranians, insisting instead that he doesn’t like either Iran or the newly-renamed Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, which was created in Iran and supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The sheiks have warned their U.S. military contacts against aggressive military actions against Sadr’s followers in Sadr City during the troop surge, according to the account given by the special ops officer. They said Sadr hopes such provocative United States actions will ultimately result in a new Shi’ite resistance war against U.S. forces, and they urge swift withdrawal to avoid that outcome.
Sadr’s project for a Sunni-Shi’ite united front against both al-Qaeda and U.S. occupation offers a potential basis for an eventual settlement of the sectarian civil war in Iraq as well as for U.S. withdrawal. But it could also be the basis for a new and more deadly phase of fighting if Sadr returns once more to military resistance.