Special Report

An Iraqi Time Bomb

Muqtada al-Sadr is back.

By 6.28.11

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"Thank you, my dearest, and may Allah preserve you and watch over you…"

With these words, Muqtada al-Sadr thanked an unidentified supporter who posted on the radical cleric's website intentions to be martyred in the name of Islam, ideology and Iraq. "The infidel occupier," is officially on notice that the current deferment of Sadr's Mehdi Army is subject to America's presence on the ground, and the firebrand's personal caprice.

Over the years, Muqtada al-Sadr's private paramilitary, the Mehdi Army, has posed the greatest threat to Iraqi security since two 500 lb. bombs ended Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's reign of terror at the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In the opinion of the Pentagon, the Mehdi Army remains the country's "most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence."

The "army" is the product of Sadr's personal charisma, and the work of his late father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein after developing the most dynamic human infrastructure network amidst Iraq's disenfranchised Shi'a majority. Initially conceived in response to the US-led invasion, a few thousand embittered, if inadequately armed, young men quickly swelled ranks to some 60,000 radicals, trained and armed with Iranian support. Ferocious street battles witnessed in 2004 and 2008 confirmed that the Mehdi Army had access to rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and the ubiquitous Kalashnikov assault rifle. Although foreign fighters operating under the banner of al-Qaeda in Iraq drew most of the international headlines, Sadr's native-born movement was the first Shi'a militia to organize on the ground, and benefited from a hierarchy of rank in a country where most men have undergone military training.

Sadr's stamp of approval on his personal website's belligerent commentary should come as little surprise. Recently, he has ramped up the anti-American rhetoric as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki weighs a decision to request that some of America's 47,000 troops stay in Iraq beyond January 1, 2012 -- a deadline agreed upon between both countries in 2008.

What's alarming is the fact that 60,000 desperate Iraqi youths, living in the country's urban slums and armed to the teeth by their Shi'a counterparts in Tehran, may not pose the real threat to Iraq's political stability.

The cleric, who recently returned to Iraq from Iran after three years of self-imposed exile and clerical training, has emerged as one of the kingmakers in Iraqi politics. Sadr has deployed a unique blend of religious nationalism, mixed with scorching anti-Americanism, to promote his image as the defender of Iraq's Shi'a community. This political maturation enabled his Free Movement party to become the only faction to gain new parliamentary seats in the last election.

We all know that politics makes for strange bedfellows. The months of political horse-trading that followed Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election proved no exception, producing peculiar marriage of convenience between Sadr and Prime Minister Maliki. Backed by U.S. forces in 2008, Mr. Maliki launched an offensive against Sadr's Mehdi Army on his home-turf in Baghdad's "Sadr City" neighborhood. Although they eventually reached a cease-fire, Sadr's criticism of the Prime Minister's special relationship with "occupying forces" persisted, while he continued to demand the complete withdrawal of America's military presence. Ultimately, however, his 39 parliamentary seats provided the necessary support for Mr. Maliki to create a ruling coalition.

Strangely, it was Sadr's embrace of the political process that allowed parliament to operate, given its fragile profile. If the U.S. military decides to stay beyond its formal date of departure, it will be at Prime Minister al-Maliki's request. That appeal will assure Muqtada al-Sadr's reprisal of a role he knows all too well, only this time, he wouldn't require heavy explosives to destroy the country's parliament. Rather, he can demolish the government politically, by withdrawing his party's support for al-Maliki's ruling coalition.

This action will send Iraq into a tailspin even his Mehdi Army could not hope to achieve.

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About the Author

Reid Smith writes from Washington. Follow him on Twitter @reidtsmith