In Basra, Another Victory for Moqtada al-Sadr

In Basra, Another Victory for Moqtada al-Sadr

The unnerving footage of the black-turbaned, hirsute, pudgy-faced, snarling, 30-something Moqtada al-Sadr has reappeared on television screens across the world. Wrapped in his black cloak and eyes pointed down at a script, he rattles off his statement to a bouquet of microphones, flanked by a posse of grinning henchmen, occasionally raising a finger for emphasis. His gravitas is his very presence: an outlaw who dares show his face. With his new nine-point plan, he is Iraq's most important politician currently outside the government, exercising a seeming ability to turn a full-scale insurgency on or off at will.

Gen. David Petraeus appears powerless to contest him without again rupturing the more manageable levels of violence in Iraq, and the country's government is frozen in its tracks. In the aftermath of the ceasefire in Basra, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the al-Iraqiya television service, "We came here to pursue criminal gangs and murderers . . . our forces were not ready for this battle and we were surprised." The moment of decisiveness for Iraq's government touted by President Bush on Friday became by Sunday yet another detour in the political course of the country. Maliki's might turned a muddle and quickly a mess-up.

No one knows how many Iraqi security forces or how many of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army died fighting in Sadr City and the streets of Basra over the past five days. All that matters is that once again this seeming no one -- still in an obscure, self-imposed exile in the holy city of Qom, Iran -- has reemerged onto Iraq's political scene. Sadr has once again turned a seeming loss into an undeniable win, and his political power has increased accordingly, to the befuddlement of the government of Iraq and the United States, who by now should know better than to underestimate the Shiite world's Machiavellian prince -- as they did Ayatollah Khomenei in years past, who in turn created the very Iran that now feeds Sadr's movement.

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