The Sadrist movement has always been about Iraq for the Iraqis. They might accept help from Iran — and I saw Iranian supplies in their compounds in Najaf in 2004 — but the movement is not for sale. Mr. Sadr gets his strength from the street. And the Arabs of the Iraqi street have no time for Persian bosses.
Nor do they seem to want to foment an all-out civil war. For all the time I have spent with Sadrist death-squad leaders who focus on killing former Baathists and Al Qaeda’s supporters (Sunnis all), I have spent just as much time with Mahdi men who have been sent by their leaders to protect Sunni mosques after Sunni provocations, lest Shiites retaliate too broadly.
It was no coincidence that in February, a few weeks after the Baghdad security plan started, a Sunni mosque was reopened in Sadr City. Nor is it a coincidence that the current plan, while it has largely failed to stop car bombs, which are primarily a Sunni phenomenon, has for the moment more or less ended the type of violence in which the Mahdi Army participated most: roving death squads.
Why would Mr. Sadr cooperate with the Americans and Mr. Maliki’s government? While he runs the biggest popular movement in the country, his followers are far from a majority. He is doing exactly what any other rational actor would do: He keeps up the angry rhetoric, and he plays ball with the democratic project.
The real story about Moktada al-Sadr is not his exciting sermons but his broad underwriting, both passive and active, of the official project in Iraq. Since he stood down his forces in August 2004, he has provided the same narrative time and again. It is what we should expect from the canniest politician in Iraq: the rhetoric of the dispossessed, and the actions of an heir to power.
Sadr's fierce Iraqi nationalism is always what made accusations of fealty to Iran transparently ridiculous.
This is also worth noting:
It is no accident that he preaches from the Kufa mosque rather than the more prestigious one at Najaf. As the site of the tomb of Imam Ali, the great martyr of Shiism, Najaf is the center of the Shiite clerical hierarchy, a Vatican of sorts for the faith. It is a rich city.
But Moktada al-Sadr leads a movement of the poor, inherited from his father, who inherited it from an uncle. His singsong exhortation in Kufa last week was a direct reference to the most famous cry from his father’s epic, and ultimately suicidal, sermons under Saddam Hussein in the 1980s: “Yes, yes, to electricity. Yes, yes, to water.” Young Mr. Sadr speaks not for the elites but for the biggest and most deprived group of people in Iraq: the Shiite lower orders.
Kufa also has special significance Shi'i history. Kufa is where Imam Hussein, grandson of Muhammad, was travelling when his party was intercepted near Karbala by the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid. Hussein had been traveling to Kufa at the request of the town's inhabitants, intending to lead a revolt against what they saw as the illegitimate Umayyad Caliphate. Yazid found out about this, sent his forces to crush the revolt in Kufa, and then to lay in wait for Hussein. Nearly all of Hussein's group were martyred, and Hussein's head was brought to Yazid as a trophy in Damascus. When Shi'is mourn the death of Imam Hussein during the Muharram observances, one of the rituals and themes is the lamentation and acceptance of the guilt of the Kufans for not coming to Hussein's aid in his hour of need.
Being based in Kufa, in addition to representing those who bore the brunt of Ba'athist tyranny, poor Shi'is, Muqtada is also able to place himself squarely within the Shi'i martyrdom narrative, and present himself and his movement as instruments of long-awaited Shi'i redemption and justice.