Muqtada al-Sadr, as the New York Times reports today. This certainly seemed clear to me from my recent reporting in Iraq. Sadr’s got the votes, from Baghdad south. My guess–my prediction, a few weeks ago on the Chris Matthews Show–is that five years from now Sadr or a Sadrist will be running a Shi’ite dominated Iraq.
One thing the Times doesn’t mention is that Sadr’s populism comes naturally–it is inherited from his father, a Grand Ayatollah who had a common touch. Genl Graeme Lamb, who leads the British expeditionary force in Iraq, told me that “They say the old man was the only Ayatollah who knew the price of tomatoes in the market.”
And it’s interesting how well the Sadrist tendency fits into the aggrieved outsider sensibility that comes so easily to Shi’ites, according to Vali Nasr, whose excellent book, The Shia Revival, should be read by anyone with an interest in this war.
And, finally, it should be noted that much of Sadr’s credibility comes from his refusal to deal with us. We shouldn’t be blind to the thuggish nature of the Sadrists: it is quite possible that we’re seeing the birth of a Hezbollah or Hamas-like movement. But it is a movement likely to remain independent of Iran (a U.S. intel officer told me, “The Sadr family are anti-Persian bigots.”), and with 30% of the Mahdi Army estimated to be former Ba’athists, it has a chance of reaching out to some elements of the Sunni insurgency as well.
Update: This, by my colleague Michael Duffy, is the most realistic assessment of Iraq options that I’ve seen.