In the Arena

“Victory” in Iraq

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It now appears that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is going to form a new government–with the support of none other than Muqtada Sadr, who is always called a “radical cleric” by the western media and whose Mahdi Army militia inflicted some of the worst losses on the U.S. military during the recent war. Sadr is a curious figure–a populist nationalist who is intermittently close to Iran (right now he’s in a ‘close’ phase). He spent the last several years in Iran, studying in Qom, the religious center of Shi’ism. His long-term plan probably doesn’t involve civilian government, but perhaps religious authority on the order of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered figure in both Iraq and Qom. Some say Sadr doesn’t have the chops to be an ayatollah; he does have the family roots, however–both his father and uncle were revered figures, murdered by Saddam Hussein.

The Maliki-Sadr deal raises an absolutely crucial question: what about the Sunnis? This is precisely the government that the Sunni minority feared; they backed secularist Ayad Allawi, the top vote getting in last spring’s elections, who will now be firmly shut out of power. This may see a revival of the Sunni insurgency that David Petraeus quelled with cash in 2007.

And what about, well…us? It is not certain that the Maliki-Sadr alliance will tilt toward Iran. Sadr has been anti-outsiders of all sorts in the past. But this does look like something less than the “victory” that John McCain and others were noisily touting last month. It looks, in fact, like an ongoing mess-as Time’s veteran Baghdad correspondent Bobby Ghosh lays out here.

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