Nationalist Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's bid
to unite Sunnis and Shi'ites on the basis of a common demand for withdrawal
of U.S. occupation forces, reported last weekend by the Washington Post's
Sudarsan Raghavan, seems likely to get a positive response from Sunni armed
An account given Pentagon officials by a military officer recently returned
from Iraq suggests that Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, who have generally
reflected the views of the Sunni armed resistance there, are open to working
According to Raghavan's report on May 20, talks between Sadr's representatives
and Sunni leaders, including leaders of Sunni armed resistance factions, first
began in April. A commander of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Abu Aja Naemi,
confirmed to Raghavan that his organization had been in discussions with Sadr's
Sadr's aides say he was encouraged to launch the new cross-sectarian initiative
by the increasingly violent opposition from nationalist Sunni insurgents to
the jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda. One of his top aides, Ahmed Shaibani, recalled
that the George W. Bush administration was arguing that a timetable was unacceptable
because of the danger of al-Qaeda taking advantage of a withdrawal. Shaibani
told Raghavan that sectarian peace could be advanced if both Sadr's Mahdi Army
and Sunni insurgent groups could unite to weaken al-Qaeda.
Raghavan reports that the cross-sectarian united front strategy was facilitated
by the fact that Shaibani had befriended members of Sunni nationalist insurgent
groups while he was held in U.S. detention centers from 2004 through 2006. Now
Shaibani, who heads a "reconciliation committee" for Sadr, is well
positioned to gain the trust of those Sunni organizations.
The talks with Sunni resistance leaders have been coordinated with a series
of other moves by Sadr since early February. Although many members of Sadr's
Mahdi Army have been involved in sectarian killings and intimidation of Sunnis
in Baghdad, Sadr has taken what appears to be a decisive step to break with
those in his movement who have been linked to sectarian violence. Over the past
three months, he has expelled at least 600 men from the Mahdi Army who were
accused of murder and other violations of Sadr's policy, according to Raghavan.
The massive demonstration against the occupation mounted in Najaf by Sadr's
organization on Apr. 9, which Iraqi and foreign observers estimated at tens
or even hundreds of thousands of people, was apparently timed to coincide with
his initiative in opening talks with the Sunnis.
The demonstration not only showed that Sadr could mobilize crowds comparable
to the largest ever seen in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, but also made clear Sadr's
commitment to transcending sectarian interests. The demonstrators carried Iraqi
flags instead of pictures of Sadr or other Shi'ite symbols. It also included
a small contingent of members of the Sunni-based Islamic Party of Iraq.
Sadr's decision in mid-April to pull his representatives out of the al-Maliki
government also appears to have been aimed in part at clearing the way for an
agreement with the Sunni insurgents. Leaders of those organizations have said
they would not accept the U.S.-sponsored government in any peace negotiations
with the United States.
U.S. officials have been quietly trying to counter Sadr's approach to the Sunni
insurgents by discrediting him. Sadr went underground in February, fearing an
attempt by U.S. forces to capture or kill him, and the U.S. official line on
Sadr since then has been the persistent claim that he has left Iraq to take
refuge in Iran. That appears to be an attempt to feed into Sunni suspicions
of all Shi'ite leaders as agents of Iran.
Sadr's aides have repeatedly denied that Sadr has left the country. The speed
with which Sadr's strategy has unfolded in recent months suggests that he has
remained in close contact with his organization Relying on electronic communication
with Sadr outside Iraq would be highly risky, given the well-known capability
of U.S. intelligence to intercept any such calls.
U.S. officials have long argued that an early withdrawal of U.S. forces would
leave Sunnis vulnerable to the Shi'ite security forces and militias. Media reporting
in recent months has portrayed Sunni leaders as not wanting a U.S. military
withdrawal any time soon, because of their fear of Shi'ite repression in the
absence of the U.S. troop presence.
But a Navy Seal special operations officer recently returned from eight months
in Anbar province, who discussed the situation there with high-ranking Pentagon
officials at the end of April, suggests that that the views of Sunni leaders
are quite compatible with those of Sadr. A source familiar with the officer's
account said the Sunni Sheiks in Anbar have been telling U.S. commanders that
the United States must withdraw its troops, and that the Sunnis know how to
handle both al-Qaeda and the Shi'ites.
The officer also reported that Sunni tribal sheiks have explicitly disavowed
the notion that Sadr is a pawn of the Iranians, insisting instead that he doesn't
like either Iran or the newly-renamed Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, which
was created in Iran and supported by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The sheiks have warned their U.S. military contacts against aggressive military
actions against Sadr's followers in Sadr City during the troop surge, according
to the account given by the special ops officer. They said Sadr hopes such provocative
United States actions will ultimately result in a new Shi'ite resistance war
against U.S. forces, and they urge swift withdrawal to avoid that outcome.
Sadr's project for a Sunni-Shi'ite united front against both al-Qaeda and U.S.
occupation offers a potential basis for an eventual settlement of the sectarian
civil war in Iraq as well as for U.S. withdrawal. But it could also be the basis
for a new and more deadly phase of fighting if Sadr returns once more to military