KING OF IRAQ

KING OF IRAQ. The L.A. Times reports that the U.S. Army is doing business with Muqtada al-Sadr.

"U.S. diplomats and military officers have been in talks with members of the armed movement loyal to Muqtada Sadr, a sharp reversal of policy and a grudging recognition that the radical Shiite cleric holds a dominant position in much of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

The secret dialogue has been going on since at least early 2006, but appeared to yield a tangible result only in the last week -- with relative calm in an area of west Baghdad that has been among the capital's most dangerous sections.

The discussions have been complicated by divisions within Sadr's movement as well as the cleric's public vow never to meet with Iraq's occupiers. Underlying the issue's sensitivity, Sadrists publicly deny any contact with the Americans or British -- fully aware the price of acknowledging such meetings would be banishment from the movement or worse.

The dialogue represents a drastic turnaround in the U.S. approach to Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army. The military hopes to negotiate the same kind of marriage of convenience it has reached in other parts of Iraq with former insurgent groups, many Saddam Hussein loyalists, and the Sunni tribes that supported them. Both efforts are examples of how U.S. officials have sought to end violence by cooperating with groups they once considered intractable enemies."

Back in June, Bartle Bull suggested that the military had already reached this sort of agreement with Jaysh al-Mahdi, evidenced by, among other things, the presence of a joint U.S.-Iraqi post in Sadr City, something which simply would not have occurred without Muqtada's okay. Given that the accommodation with JAM has been developing in fits and starts for over a year, it probable that this was the template for the deal with Sunni tribal elements in Anbar, not the other way around. The U.S. has, in both cases, empowered groups and made deals which, if contributing to some localized security, will also contribute to the continued break up of Iraq, which would seem to signify an acceptance by the U.S. of soft partition. More significantly, the new U.S. posture toward Sadr indicates acquiescence to his control over large, formerly Sunni portions of Baghdad. It's one thing to recognize and empower Shia insurgent groups in traditionally Shia neighborhoods, or Sunni insurgents in Sunni Anbar, it's something else to recognize Shia control over areas that have been cleansed of Sunnis. Given how significant the city is to Islamic history, and to Iraqi Sunni social, political, and cultural life specifically, I think it's likely that control of Baghdad will continue to be a rallying point for the Sunni insurgency, just as Jerusalem has been to the Palestinians.

--Matthew Duss

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