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The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

The Insurgent as Counterinsurgent

In early April, the tenuous security gains of 2007’s surge by U.S. troops in Iraq were jeopardized by an Iraqi government assault against hard-line Shiite

Elisa Mueller
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | May 02, 2008

U.S. soldiers enter Sadr City, Iraq. (www.army.mil)
U.S. soldiers enter Sadr City, Iraq. (www.army.mil)

In early April, the tenuous security gains of 2007′s surge by U.S. troops in Iraq were jeopardized by an Iraqi government assault against hard-line Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr. In Basra and the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S. troops, battled Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, leaving at least 925 dead and 2,600 wounded in a campaign that continues as of this writing.

While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki likely launched the attack to weaken Sadr’s rival Shiite party ahead of this fall’s provincial elections, his move left Sadr in a commanding position: this week, parliamentarians from Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish blocs joined with Sadr’s Shiite followers in a peaceful protest against Maliki’s Sadr City crackdown.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

In Iraq, Moqtada Sadr is perhaps the most powerful single political actor. But in the United States, he is treated with derision and contempt by both officials and commentators. During a visit to Baghdad last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice all but called Sadr a coward, saying he was “sitting in Iran” while promising “.” In the right-wing blogosphere, Sadr is commonly called “Mookie.” Yet while the political fortunes of all other Iraqi Arab political figures have waxed and waned, only Sadr has consistently gained strength. That raises the question: Why?

One common explanation is that Sadr is the heir to a distinguished Shiite clerical line that offered the most potent and authentic resistance to Saddam Hussein. A complementary theory holds that Sadr’s anti-occupation demagoguery provides all the adherent force he needs.

But a different interpretation — not exclusive of the other two — might hold the key to Sadr’s continued success. Sadr is an insurgent figure who adopts key principles of His military strategy is complemented by an appealing political and economic strategy for securing the loyalties of the population. That would help explain why the counterinsurgents battling Sadr in Baghdad have consistently lost.

“While other individuals and parties sought U.S. support and bickered over the high-profile government ministries,” A.J. Rossmiller, who spent 2005 in Baghdad as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote an e-mail, “Sadrists quietly sought the three things most valuable in a political system: popular legitimacy, a patronage network and the ability to provide for the basic needs of citizens.”

Some counterinsurgents believe that Sadr’s own dexterity with counterinsurgency principles, combined with his deep political support in Iraq, make accommodation the only sensible strategy. “The best solution now,” said longtime counterinsurgency advocate and former Army officer Terrence Daly, “is to try to coopt Sadr’s forces.” Defeating him, in other words, is beyond the U.S.’s capabilities.

The principles of counterinsurgency are diverse, but they could be summed up as methods of warfare used to draw a civilian population’s political and personal allegiance away from a guerrilla force. A counterinsurgent force seeks to coordinate military and civilian methods to offer both material and ideological incentives to a population so it will support a government and reject that government’s enemies.

Currently, the U.S. military and its civilian associates have launched a “population protection” strategy to defend Baghdad residents against sectarian and criminal gangs; to promote competent and responsible governance at the provincial as well as national levels; to jump start commerce; and to provide social services like education health care and sanitation.

But in the areas under his control, Sadr provides all these things — and does so better than the Iraqi government.

It is true that Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, has been implicated in scores of sectarian murders of Sunni Iraqis, thereby expediting and deepening Iraq’s civil war. But the Mahdi Army has also stood as a bulwark for Shiites against Sunni aggression or reprisal, patrolling neighborhoods when no other force was willing or able to protect inhabitants from violence. While Iraq’s legal system has remained paralyzed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Sadr established courts within months that — while dealing out an illiberal brand of Islamic justice that has little respect for women’s or minority rights — adjudicated people’s disputes. In 2004, when Sunni Iraqis in Fallujah were locked in a stand-off with U.S. Marines, Sadr organized a blood drive in Baghdad even as his own forces battled U.S. troops.

A new report from Refugees International, released Apr. 15, assessed that Sadr “provides shelter, food and non-food items to hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites in Iraq,” making it “the main service provider in the country.” Among Sadr’s more recent efforts has been the active resettlement some of the two million Iraqis internally displaced by the continuing conflict. Refugees International found that while Maliki’s efforts have been lacking, Sadr provides not just cost-free housing but also food and a modest income stipend. In other words, according to the report, Sadr provides better governance than the Iraqi government.

It is as if Sadr has read the Army and Marine Corps’ 2006 field manual on counterinsurgency. Spearheaded by such respected counterinsurgents as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the manual’s central insight is that political and economic measures, and not simply military ones, are what defeats insurgencies. “Political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies; each side aims to get the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate,” the manual states. “Long-term success in COIN [counterinsurgency] depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule. Achieving this condition requires the government to eliminate as many causes of the insurgency as feasible.”

But Sadr’s appeal is not strictly material. Even if he did not deliver the services he provides, he would still have two potent assets that no other Iraqi political figure jointly possesses. First is his uncompromising anti-occupation stance. Last year, his deputies in Parliament led an effort to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops that won a parliamentary majority — only to be ignored by Maliki.

More fundamentally, Sadr’s family led the religious resistance to Saddam Hussein, with both his father and his uncle becoming high-profile victims of the regime. The Sadrist Current that he helms is a movement in Iraq with roots far deeper than any other organized political entity.

Sadr has also managed to overcome the few challenges to his religious authority. Iraq’s supreme Shiite authority, the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is the only cleric whose religious-political influence outshines Sadr’s. While Sistani has receded from Iraqi politics since 2005, the Shiite parties still look to him to grant his imprimatur on controversial political moves. As a result, Sadr has sought to co-opt Sistani, even as Sistani has sought to co-opt Sadr. “The relationship is mutually opportunistic, but also pragmatic, since the two clerics have not been able to ignore each other,” observed Babak Rahimi of the Jamestown Foundation in a widely-read analysis last year. He noted that the alliance of convenience “is bound to reshape Iraqi Shiite politics in the years to come.” Additionally, Sadr is getting ecclesiastical training in the Iranian city of Qom, a vital step for bolstering his own religious prestige.

When faced with a powerful enemy who enjoys significant popular support, one approach counterinsurgents sometimes advise is co-optation. In 2007, with Robert Gates at the helm of the Pentagon and Petraeus at the helm of the Iraq war, there was a significant effort to signal that the U.S. had no real problem with Sadr.

In June 2007, Petraeus gave an interview to USA Today that conspicuously praised the cleric. “Actually, first of all I’d like to say that Muqtada al-Sadr issued a very constructive statement today in the wake of the Samarra attack calling for mourning for several days and calling for restraint,” Petraeus said. “That continues the line of messages that he has put out since his return from Iran a couple weeks ago, in which he has ordered his followers not to attack Sunnis (or) other Iraqis, not to attack mosques and shrines.”

When Sadr declared a ceasefire following an August battle with a government-aligned Shiite militia, the U.S. military coined a euphemism for elements within the Sadrist movement: “Special Groups.” The term, which Petraeus used during both his September and April congressional testimony, denoted a Sadrist militia splinter-group that did not obey the ceasefire — and against which U.S. military force was used. But the subtext was just as significant: it was a signal that the U.S. did not wish to fight the within the Sadrist Current.

Even during Sadr’s April battle with U.S. and Iraqi forces, that approach still seemed in effect.

Some in the counterinsurgency community have come to recognize Sadr’s power as an unpleasant fact that the U.S. must learn to live with. They view him less like an Islamic zealot determined to thwart America and more like an organized-crime boss.

“Like a local mob boss, he established local security, doled out jobs and tapped into the widespread distrust of government (and of course the U.S.) among the population,” Rossmiller wrote. “When there’s a war going on these things tend to be thought of as counterinsurgency measures, but more generally we think of them as the basic requirements for any government or group to claim authority.”

Daly, the former Army officer, believes a similar outlook holds the seeds for future strategy. To view Sadr as an enemy to be defeated instead of a challenge to mitigate, is to risk compounding the U.S.’s mistakes, in his view. “It will be a little like Elliott Ness in Chicago in the 1920s telling Al Capone that his mob can have the rackets as long as they tamp down street crime,” he said, “but we and the Iraqis will just have to do the best we can to attain the longterm U.S. goal.”

No one, of course, has figured out how to eradicate organized crime.

*This is the fourth in a series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents. *

Part One: The Colonels and ‘The Matrix’

Part Two: A Famous Enigma

Part Three: Petraeus’ Ascension

Elisa Mueller | Elisa Mueller was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother who taught reading and a father who taught film. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of her childhood reading books and watching movies. She went to the University of Kansas for college, where she earned bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. She moved to New York City and worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine for ten years, visiting film sets all over the world.


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