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Geopolitical Diary: Al-Sadr’s Calculus
Some 25 U.S. troops in Iraq were killed in a single day this weekend,
making it the third bloodiest since the war began. Also, Muqtada al-Sadr
announced he was ending his boycott of parliament and that he was
therefore rejoining the political process. There is not a direct
connection between these two events, but there is a connection
To begin, the deaths of the U.S. troops did not occur in any one sector,
but in several. Twelve of the 25 were killed in the crash of a Blackhawk
helicopter northeast of Baghdad. Some were killed in Anbar province by
Sunni insurgents. Five were killed in Karbala, in Shiite territory. The
geographical diffusion of the deaths is important: The United States is
increasing the tempo of its operations around the country. Troops are
moving around, they are holding meetings (as was the case in Karbala)
and carrying out patrols. In the current phase of operations, as more
troops move into Baghdad, the increase in troop strength is less
significant than the increase in the tempo of operations. As the U.S.
military becomes more aggressive, it will incur more casualties.
From the standpoint of al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army, there are three
considerations in all of this.
First, the United States is clearly targeting al-Sadr and his
organization. He cannot be sure that it won’t be successful in that
mission. If the U.S. military is prepared to take casualties, al-Sadr
has to calculate that he can be, at least, badly hurt. The more damage
the United States does, the less leverage the Mehdi militia has among
Second, there is the potential for the opposite outcome. Assume that the
United States surges the operational tempo, goes after al-Sadr, fails to
take him out and takes massive casualties in the process. It is not
inconceivable that domestic American politics will force the United
States to reverse course and begin the withdrawal process that is being
discussed by the Democrats.
In both of those cases, rejoining the political process makes sense for
al-Sadr. If things go against him, being part of the political process
in Iraq prior to becoming desperate allows him to negotiate a place for
himself and his faction while still at full strength. If, on the other
hand, U.S. troops attack and fail to destroy him, while taking massive
casualties, his involvement in the political process puts him in a
position to become a defining character in postwar Iraqi politics.
The third consideration involves the chance that al-Sadr could deter an
American attack. After all, if he is now being a good citizen,
participating in the government, the United States is going to find it
much harder to justify launching an offensive against him. The United
States cannot simultaneously demand that al-Sadr reach a political
accommodation and try to destroy him while he is in the process of doing
In a way, al-Sadr is playing directly into the Bush administration’s
hands. U.S. President George W. Bush is hoping to revive the political
process in Iraq by using the threat of attacks to motivate cooperation
from the various factions. But al-Sadr is only partially playing into
Bush’s hands, because Bush is still running the huge risk that
casualties will break the back of American will. Bush is on politically
thin ice. If casualties were to rise to Vietnam levels (several hundred
in a week) for an extended period of time, his runway might turn out to
be too short. In that event, al-Sadr would have snookered Bush — by
showing himself capable of dominating the Iraqi political process and
giving the Americans the worst possible outcome.
An uptick in American casualties and al-Sadr announcing that he is
returning to parliament are, therefore, linked together. As the U.S.
strategy unfolds militarily, al-Sadr’s political strategy shifts to
avoid and take advantage of the new dimensions.