Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said the U.S. military would stay in Iraq if the Iraqi government asked it to. (President Obama has yet to publicly weigh in on this issue.) This news naturally got the neocons excited, who have since crawled out of the woodwork to rally for a continued U.S. presence. While Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has stated repeatedly that he opposes any plan for U.S. forces to stay past the Dec. 31, 2011 withdrawal deadline, he recently has softened his tone.
But the main question is what Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will do. Sadr has been adamant that the U.S. leave on time, warning for months that he will unleash his Mahdi Army on American forces if they stay. But Sadr himself recently signaled he has softened his stance as well. “Luckily,” war hawk Max Boot wrote yesterday, “momentum seems to be building to keep U.S. forces in Iraq past 2011.” Yet news that tens of thousands of Sadr loyalists marched in Baghdad today to voice opposition to U.S. forces staying in Iraq appears to have halted that momentum. And Sadr’s followers don’t seem to be messing around:
— “I applied to the call of Sadr to participate against American occupiers,” said Salah Emarah, 35, who traveled from his home in Basra to march in the parade. “This is a peaceful demonstration against American occupiers. Sadr asked us to remain peaceful. At the end of the year, according to Iraq, the occupiers will leave. If they don’t, we will wait for orders.”
— “All the people in Sadr City are waiting for orders from Muqtada Sadr,” said Muhammad Fuad, a 28-year-old carpenter watching the parade. “And we have people all over Iraq — northern, southern.”
— “I came here on the orders of Moqtada al-Sadr to help kick out the occupiers from our country,” said Alaa Hussein, 21, a student taking part. “If the government keeps American troops here we will consider them an illegitimate government.”
— “We will not accept even one American soldier staying,” said Adnan al-Mussawi, one of the demonstrators. “Occupation has not benefited us at all, it is our religious duty to kick out every American soldier.”
Referring to the fact that Sadr’s block in Parliament wants the U.S. to leave, this week Gates said it’s debatable “how much of that is the Sadrists and how much of that is the Iranians behind the Sadrists.” The New York Times noted that Gates “had never before cited Iran as a factor in the Obama administration’s thinking.” It’s important to point out however, that, as CAP’s Matt Duss previously noted, one shouldn’t confuse “backing” with “control” when talking about Iran’s relationship to Sadr: “A number of analysts have made the mistake of treating Sadr simply as an instrument of Iran, when in fact his movement is deeply nationalistic.”
Moreover, if countering Iranian influence is now the standard for consideration of the U.S. military staying in Iraq past 2011, then American forces would probably stay in Iraq forever. Iran’s clout in Iraq is extensive; it’s not just with Sadr’s group, and the Americans are largely responsible for it. CAP’s Larry Korb recently wrote, “Iran does not have to invade Iraq to have influence there. It was the Iranians who got Al-Sadr to support Maliki. And Maliki has repaid them by supporting their positions on Bahrain, Lebanon, and Hamas.” And as one Iraqi told Duss, “America has baked Iraq like a cake,” he said. “And given it to Iran to eat.”
Photo credit: The Washington Post
In a “rare interview” with the BBC, Sadr said today again threatened to unleash his militia if the Americans stay:
“I know that the Iraqi government is under a lot of pressure from the American occupiers, to allow them to stay in Iraq,” he said in the holy city of Najaf.
“If the Americans don’t withdraw, we will re-activate the Mehdi Army. At the moment their activities are frozen, but if the Americans stay, that will change.
“We are still the resistance and we can still hit their bases, troops and equipment as long as they are in Iraq.”