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The Big Dog of Baghdad

The news that Moqtada al-Sadr's politicians--including five Cabinet members and 30 members of parliament--have "suspended" involvement in Iraq's government was a very timely if unwelcome reminder that the man once derided by U.S. officials as a "pipsqueak cleric" is a big dog indeed these days.The "suspension"--falling short of an actual withdrawal from the government, which would cause it to fall--was transparently a reminder to Iraqi prime minister Maliki that he's on a very short leash in Amman, where he's to meet with George Bush tomorrow.In case you've missed it, Sadr's virulently anti-American Shi'a militia, the Mahdi Army, is generally held responsible for the vast wave of indiscriminate killings of Sunnis that has helped mobilize Sunni support for the insurgency while plunging Iraq into civil war. Used to be the experts thought Sadr was a paper tiger who was being quietly restrained by moderate Shi'a cleric Ayotollah Sistani. Not any more.Here's a chilling summary of Sadr's current status in Iraq posted today by the Washington Post's David Ignatius:

Sadr has been the biggest winner in the power vacuum of Iraq. A senior U.S. intelligence analyst told me this week that Sadr's forces are eight times larger than they were in August, 2004. If provincial elections were held today, the intelligence official said, Sadr's party would win in every Shiite province of Iraq but one. And Sadr for sure has been the most powerful political muscle behind Maliki's fragile coalition.
So that's what, and whom, we are dealing with in any effort to somehow create a viable government of national unity in Iraq.UPDATE: When I wrote this post, I didn't immediately think about the fact that calling someone a "dog" is often taken as a deadly insult in Arab culture. I certainly don't want to exhibit any ethnocentricity here. If Moqtada al-Sadr joins the long historical ranks of bloodthirsty killers who aspire to statesmanship, and become peace-keepers, I'll take it back. But until then, I'll say it again: he's a dog, albeit a big dog.
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