Top U.S. officials have made clear in recent months that if the Iraqis ask, American troops will remain in Iraq past the withdrawal deadline at the end of the year. While Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said late last month that the Iraqis had to decide “within weeks” for logistical purposes, the Washington Post reported this weekend that Mullen’s demand “will not be met,” thus “complicating plans for the U.S. military withdrawal.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials and citizens alike have given a wide variety of reasons why American troops should or should not leave Iraq on schedule. While those arguing for a continued U.S. presence usually cite some security fear that is either baseless, unverifiable or impossible to quantify, one complication is this whole debate is very real: Moktada al-Sadr. Sadr, whose base of support is wide both in Parliament and among ordinary Iraqis, has made it very clear that he wants the U.S. military to leave Iraq on time. “If the Americans don’t leave Iraq on time, we will increase the resistance and restart the activities of the Mahdi Army,” Sadr said in a statement last month. And it doesn’t seem like he’ll have any trouble mobilizing his supporters:
The most fervent opposition can be found in Sadr City, the Shiite slum in Baghdad that represents the heart of Mr. Sadr’s constituency. On a recent Friday before prayers began, Najim Abbas, a young house painter, echoed what many there say when asked about Mr. Sadr’s threat to reconstitute his militia.
“Whatever he says, we will do,” Mr. Abbas said. “We will keep on resisting until the last days of our lives.”
But the certitude of the Sadr-effect should the U.S. military stay in Iraq past 2011 is not measured in simply security terms. As CAP’s Larry Korb noted recently in an op-ed arguing for the Obama administration to leave Iraq on time, Sadr’s political clout could have dire consequences for the entire government:
If US troops remain, violence against Americans may increase and Maliki’s government will likely collapse. Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose support was critical to Maliki’s success in forming a government even though he finished second in the elections, will likely withdraw his support from Maliki if he renegotiates the agreement, thus creating political chaos. In addition, he has promised to reconstitute his Mahdi Army militia, which could be joined by other Shi’ite extremist groups in attacking Americans.
Last week, Sadr announced plans for a peaceful rally to take place May 23 in Baghadad to show his movement’s strength in calling for a U.S. withdrawal.