Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sadr Day's Gone; Sunny Days Ahead?

Birthdays tend to make me pensive in all the usual ways. Will this lap round the Sun bring better days? Has the trip thus far yielded the sorts of fruits I would want on my table? Have my ponderings on personal and world affairs been more or less on target? As usual, a mixed bag. People turn out to be better and worse than we expect, prompting sometimes painful revisiting and revision of cherished anchors of thought and feeling, lettings-go and holdings-on. Nothing especially remarkable here, and, on balance, the good outweighs the bad. Thankfully, the pages keep turning.

Today's WSJ Opinion Page offers another ray of hope peeking through the acrid smoke which had hung for so long over the Land of the Two Rivers. It seems that Moqtada al Sadr has decided that the "Lesser Jihad" of the sword has not worked out so well after all:

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr plans to announce Friday that he will disarm his Mahdi Army, which was raining mortars on Baghdad's Green Zone as recently as April. Coupled with the near-total defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq, this means the U.S. no longer faces any significant organized military foe in the country. It also marks a major setback for Iran, which had used the Mahdi Army as one of its primary vehicles for extending its influence in Iraq.

I have no illusions that Sadr's decision to turn inward to spiritual studies and disarm his militia constitutes anything but a pragmatic calculation of his chances for success. That's kind of the point; his Mahdi Army has faced nothing but ignominious defeat whenever it has tried to stage a frontal assault on Coalition and Iraqi National forces, and, like any 'decent' politician, he has opted to make a virtue of a necessity.

Now, this is not to say that he might not simply be keeping his powder dry against some future opportunity to resume his thuggish power grabs. Indeed, that's also the point; he has tipped his hand with the Iraqi people, who have shown that they have no stomach for the constant mayhem which is all that Sunni and Shiite Islamists have to offer. If Sadr is banking that the withdrawal of Coalition forces over the next few years will open up a power vacuum into which he can try and inject himself, then I hope he has diversified his portfolio. There are increasingly strong indications that the schismatic sectarianism with which he butters his bread may have gone irrevocably rancid in the mouths of his countrymen, who, more and more, are seeing themselves --first and foremost-- as Iraqis.

Nationalism has a mixed history, to be sure. It has often been pressed into the service of some very nasty memes indeed. However, in this context it has the potential to serve as an organizing principle for the energies of populations whose loyalties have been tapped into fractious and centrifugal vectors for far too long. If the Nation of Iraq can serve as a sort of 'meta-tribe' to which these assorted groups can lend their allegiance, then much more blood may stay safely in the veins of countless mother's sons and daughters. One may even dare to hope that others in the region will look to the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates for a model --imperfect and evolving as it may be-- for their own lands.

Years hence, Iraqis may look to these days and see a kind of birthday of their own, a point of departure on a journey whose way-points will be marked with blood and tears and songs and celebrations. They should have that chance, and we should not shirk our responsibility to see them through these formative times, having come this far.

Who knows. There might even be cake.

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