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May 20, 2004

They Shoot Strong Horses, Don't They?

For some time we've been arguing that we could take a wait-and-see attitude with respect to the Fallujah and Sadrists insurgents. We thought that, because we assumed there was no likely path to power for either group. The Fallujah terrorists were Sunni Baathists who would never be allowed by the Shia majority to control the country. The Sadrists were Shia, but we thought they were unpopular too, and opposed by the most influential figure among the Shia, al-Sistani.

This poll, if correct, would seem to indicate that we have to either act against Sadr quickly and forcefully or else accept the possibility that he may soon come to actual power, possibly even control of Iraq:

Respondents saw Mr Sadr as Iraq's second most influential figure after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most senior Shia cleric. Some 32 per cent of respondents said they strongly supported Mr Sadr and another 36 per cent somewhat supported him.

The poll might be inaccurate, of course. And the "support" registered for al-Sadr might not be real support. Iraqis might be using that question to underscore their rising unhappiness with the US occupation; they might be indicating general support of al-Sadr's stated goal of ending the US occupation.

But if the poll is accurate, it illuminates a grave problem. By allowing Sadr to continue defying us with impunity, we may have made him a "strong horse" in the eyes of Iraqis-- and, as Osama bin Ladin said, between a weak horse and a strong horse Arabs and Muslims will choose the strong one.

If this is the case, we are presented with two alternatives, neither of which is pleasant or without great risk.

We could continue attempting to poltically isolate Sadr, which would seem not to be working. If it continues not working, we would have to accept the very real possibility of a President Sadr of Iraq, and the possibility that the nation will spent billions of dollars and eight hundred US soldiers' lives liberating will become a virulently anti-US, terrorist-supporting satrapy of Iran.

Or we could take firm and forceful action against him now -- as in, tomorrow, if we can catch him on the way to delivering Friday's prayers. If we killed him, we would largely end the threat of a Sadrist takeover, but we would also be faced with the real possibility of what we have always feared-- a genuine, popular, broad-based revolt against American rule.

Since our powers of prognostication have proved inadequate in the past, we'll avoid making strong arguments as to which is preferable. Although it would seem to us that between a disasterous course of action, and a course of action that risks disaster, one should go with the latter.

Bear in mind, all of that is predicated on the assumption that the poll is both accurate and actually measures what it purports to measure, i.e., genuine political support for Sadr. That assumption may not be true at all.

Iraq the Model presents an anecdote suggesting that, even in Sadr City, al-Sadr is not in fact very popular at all.

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posted by Ace at 11:39 AM

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