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Defeat in Iraq: Muqtada's Return

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The return of Muqtada Al-Sadr, a junior Shia cleric and head of the Mehdi Army militia, from his refuge in Iran to a prominent role in Iraqi politics is not only a sad testimony to the sham democracy in Iraq but also serves a humiliating end to America's adventure there.

Unless there is an about-face by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki regarding Muqtada's strengthened role in Iraqi politics, or in an extreme case a military coup by nationalists, Iraqis will live in perpetual fear for the foreseeable future.

Muqtada's resurgence as chief of the Sadrist political faction means that any hopes of reconciliation between Shia and Sunni will be dashed. We have already seen a renewed vicious campaign against weakened minorities, such as the Christians, gain in ferocity in the past six months.

It also means that Iraqi Sunnis will likely not participate in any democratic endeavor in the future; their enthusiasm in the elections process last year resulted in Maliki's return to power despite losing at the ballot. But because Iraq's constitution has been rewritten with vague terminology and skewed in favour of sectarian politics (and because the courts are controlled by his allies), Maliki not only returned but also made Muqtada the real winner of the elections.

It was intense Iranian pressure that brought the Shia factions together - after Muqtada vowed to prevent Maliki from becoming prime minister - to essentially overthrow the Iraqiya party which really won the March 2010 elections.

Muqtada's return does not bode well for the war-weary nation. His support of Maliki in securing the premiership came at a price - the Sadrists control the Education and Justice ministries, among six others, and will continue to implant theological paradigms in the curricula while maintaining Sharia Law to override every other legal consideration. Women's rights are likely to be left in the Middle Ages.

The Sadrists know they are the so-called kingmakers and are the fulcrum for stability within the new Iraqi parliament. They have won several concessions from the interior ministry, including the release in December of hundreds of Mehdi militia members, many of whom participated in atrocities against Iraqi civilians. Some fear revenge attacks against their arresting officers.

Muqtada is the brainchild of the Sadrists main doctrines; to understand which way they will move the country one must look at comments the young cleric has made in the past.

In 2005, he issued a fatwa forbidding men from wearing shorts. A few months later, the coach of the national tennis team and two of his star players were executed in Baghdad for wearing shorts.

In 2006, he signaled he would ban football in Iraq when he issued a fatwa calling the national sport evil and sacrilegious. He has also said that the sport is an Israeli conspiracy designed to distract Arabs.

Just two weeks ago, he issued a fatwa forbidding Iraqis from working with foreign companies until the latters' intentions were known.

The Mehdi militia is a prime example of the religious zealotry that has gripped Iraq. In May 2007, they issued an order that all Christian women in Baghdad should be veiled; they have shot at cars if unveiled women are spotted in the windows.

Christian and Muslim women in Basra who did not adhere to the new dress codes and continued to work had their noses crushed. Other women suffered much more horribly.

According to a Sunday Times article published in May 2007:

Their autopsies revealed painful deaths. One woman found in "a red dress" had a 9mm bullet wound in her left hand, three in her right hand, three in her right upper arm, and three in her back. Two of the women were beheaded, one with a saw.

Six years ago, I wrote an article about how Muqtada was becoming America's nightmare. I wrote then that:

The political and emotional dynamic among Iraqis creates intense difficulty for the US. Al-Sadr has ensured that his destiny is a catalyst for further anti-US sentiment and resistance. However, for each day that al-Sadr's forces retain control of the towns they have "liberated from the US occupation", he will be seen as the centre of resistance to the occupation. The United States is then likely to be caught in a trap of its own making.

Unfortunately, there are some who have inflated Muqtada's status as a revolutionary and his street battles with US forces as uprisings. They were never uprisings but merely a show of force by a man using the established clerical reputation of his family to gain a foothold among some of Iraq's Shia, position himself as a resistance leader and earn dividends both in Iran and among Iraq's disenfranchised.

His militia is comprised not of revolutionary nationalists but is a ragtag force of high school drop-outs, brigands, and common criminals; it is no threat to a regular army and was routed even by the then poorly-trained Iraqi army. However, the police, security and armed forces have been infiltrated by thousands of Sadrists in the past five years.

Muqtada's relationship with Iraqi cabinets since 2003 have been tense. In 2004, he threatened to issue a fatwa calling on the Mehdi Army to blow themselves up if they were forced out of Najaf by the Iraqi and US armies. When Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a Shia secularist, visited Najaf a short time later, he was greeted with shoes and sandals thrown in his face.

In April 2010, senior Sadrists threatened to use force when they blamed the Maliki government for failing to provide security to Sadr City. Hazim Al-Araji told the Al Sharqiya satelllite channel that "The government on the one hand is not protecting its people and on the other is torturing Iraqis," he said shortly after the Friday bombings. Al-Araji accused the Maliki government of establishing 32 new prisons in Baghdad alone.

He said that the Sadrist bloc - which has long opposed Maliki's re-election - had been aware of several "secret" prisons and had called on the government to disclose their locations and release the detainees. However, he refused to divulge any further information.

Al-Araji also called for the Mahdi Army militia to begin exercising its right to safeguard Islamic shrines and the "vulnerable" people of Sadr City; he said the Mahdi Army should fully cooperate with Iraq's security forces in patrolling parts of Baghdad.

Muqtada's return is likely to create tension within Maliki's coalition.

American strategists can claim victory in replacing a secular dictator with a theocratic one. In the meantime, the trap has been sprung and all Iraqis are living the nightmare.

This article has been updated in the second paragraph and a section has been added to the last six paragraphs.