When Iraqi Shi’ites want to insult each other, they accuse each other of being pro-Iranian, and it is an accusation. They buy the idea of an “Iraqi nation,” as long as it’s their gang running it. One thing you can absolutely count on in the Middle East is that every clan, every sect, is going to look out for itself. The middle-class Shia are using us; Sadr’s using Iran; but they’re both out for themselves. Sadr would probably have been willing to cooperate with us, if Bremer hadn’t pushed him into rebellion in 2004. So it’s a mistake to think of any of these groups as having permanent alliances. They’re practical people.
So are the Iranians. They really know how to play this kind of long, slow war. They can control exactly the level of chaos inside Iraq by feeding weapons and money in when they want to heat the place up, then withholding supplies when they want to cool it down. They’re embedded with every militia, even the Sunni groups, and they use them like control rods in a nuke reactor. The way the ceasefire this week was arranged says it all: a bunch of big Shia politicians flew to Qom, Khomeini’s hometown in Iran, and begged the Iranians to stop the shooting. They talked to Sadr, and Sadr agreed—for his own reasons, not just because the Iranians told him to.
And that brings us back to today’s story problem in “How to Think Like A Guerrilla.” The question, kiddies, was, “If Moqtada S. is kicking ass all over Iraq, why does he call off his militia before they can win total ‘Western-style’ victory?”
If you’ve learned your lesson here, you should be able to answer that question now. Sadr called off his boys for lots of good reasons:
1. The first job of a guerrilla army is to stay alive. That’s much more important than winning a Western-style victory. The Mahdi Army is intact, ready for the next round.
2. The next most important job of a guerrilla army is to maintain and grow its support in the neighborhood. Sadr has his own constituency—and I mean that literally, since all the Shia groups are positioning themselves for elections this Fall. By calling off the fight, he spares his people further gore and destruction and comes off as the compassionate defender of the poor. Just in time for campaign season.
3. A guerrilla army facing occupiers with a monopoly on air power is committing suicide by going for total victory on the ground, seizing an entire city or district. Just ask the Sunni, who bunkered up in Fallujah and got slaughtered. By melting back into the civilian population, the Sadrists are now invulnerable to air attack.
4. After four straight days of failure by the Badr Brigade/Iraqi Army, the US was frustrated enough to start committing American ground troops to the assault on Sadr. That would have meant serious casualties for the Mahdi Army, as it did when they took on US forces in 2004. Not that they’re afraid to die for their neighborhood—Shias? You kidding me?—but because it would be stupid to die fighting the Americans when everyone in Iraq knows the US just doesn’t figure much in the long term.
Sadr’s not afraid of us, he and his commanders just see us as a dangerous nuisance, like a chained pit bull they have to step around. Ten years from now, every player in the current game will still be playing this slow, shady game, except one: the Americans.
Gary Brecher's book The War Nerd will be available this June.