More on Moqtada

I’ve been a bit busy here in Baghdad, what with running around trying to get a handle on the Sunni insurgency while also dealing with demands for stories on al-Sadr. Also, for the last three days I’ve been holding down the fort for the TIME bureau while a new bureau chief comes in, so I’ve not been getting out as much as I’d like during that time.
But it’s hard to escape the story of the moment, which is the looming showdown with Moqtada al-Sadr. I go back and forth on how serious the al-Sadr inflammation really is. On the one hand, if Moqtada al-Sadr is killed there will be a bloodbath. If the shrine of Imam Ali is stormed, Shi’as all over the world will take to the streets. And yet, I suspect any violence from that would be short-lived. There is no real No. 2 guy in the Sadr movement; he’s the remaining scion of the al-Sadr family. And that’s the basis of his power, in a nutshell. Yes, he would be a martyr, but people follow him because he’s got a heavy family name and is the son of a genuine patriot who stood up to Saddam Hussein and paid for it with his life. In the event of his death, his followers would be up for grabs to the likes of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and other smaller, religious parties. His movement would fragment.
[UPDATE 12-AUG 0907 +0400 GMT: Allawi’s office issued a press statement this morning denying his government had given approval to American forces to storm the holy shrines in Najaf. This contradicts earlier press reports from the New York Times and the Washington Post, which quote a “military spokesman” and even Allawi spokesman Georges Sada as confirming approval had been given.]
But what about the passion of the Sadr City street? Moqtada has been able to rouse the passions of a lot of angry young men who are furious at being — in this order — poor, ignored, occupied and lacking electricity, but it’s not clear he can lead them anywhere but into an abyss. His fighters can take to the street, but the amount of damage they’re doing to the MNF and the Iraqi government is quite minor, actually. Militarily, they’re a pain in the ass more than a threat to the government. They do seem to have a talent for getting government employees to stay home, however; the Mehdi Army — in a delicious bit of political theatre — faxed a press release to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s office warning of an indefinite 1 p.m. curfew and telling all state workers to stay home or be shelled. A lot of them did today.
Anyway, back to the “street.” An insight I’ve gained since I’ve been here is this: No one cares what the street thinks. Well, no one in power, I mean. For all the talk of the Arab street, there has never been a popular revolution in an Arab country based on the passion of the masses. They’re easily manipulated and utterly disorganized. The one exception would be Iran — which is not an Arab country. Why were the Persians different? I’m not sure yet, but I suspect it has something to do with a depth of political culture and a thriving middle class that joined with the masses to oust the Shah in 1979. With no petit bourgeoisie to lend political oomph to the street demonstrations, Iran would be … well, a lot like Iraq is today: a thin, rich strata separated by the poor, angry but inchoate and disorganized masses by a few hardy middle-class souls who really just want to get the hell out of the country.
Mobs are terrifying, but they’re relatively easy to deal with if you’re willing to kill a lot of people and say the hell with world opinion. The latter is unlikely to be a problem for Allawi and the Americans, however; world opinion is basically against Moqtada. Oh, sure, you’ll always have hard-core anti-imperialists who support anyone who stands up to the United States’ presence in Iraq. They will make their calls for real democracy in Iraq without understanding that Moqtada and his followers don’t want democracy; they want an Islamic state with Moqtada at the head. And that’s something that vast majority of Iraqis emphatically don’t want. If he and his radical followers get slaughtered, I think the world will believe they brought it on themselves. The West’s brow will remain largely unfurrowed and its conscience untroubled.
Al-Sadr may yet produce his own private Götterdammerung, but whether it remains a ripple or turns into a tsunami remains to be seen.