Newsweek reports on Muqtada al-Sadr's role vis-a-vis the surge:

Gen. David Petraeus has been deservedly praised for tamping down violence in Iraq, but an unlikely character deserves some credit—Sadr. Five months ago the firebrand cleric ordered his followers to lay down their arms, and they've largely obeyed...American officers now talk about "splitting the seams" within the Shiite militia—working with moderates in the group to isolate the radicals, similar to the strategy adopted to tame the Sunni insurgency.


The hope is that this kind of bottom-up reconciliation will push senior Sadrist leaders toward moderation, too...But things could just as well turn out badly. If Sadr achieves the rank of ayatollah, he will be a heavyweight political, as well as religious, authority—and he'll have a leaner, more loyal militia at his disposal. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has drawn comparisons between Sadr's movement and Hizbullah, which does not bode well for long-term stability.

I think this gets it backwards in a couple of ways. First, Muqtada's already a heavyweight political authority; what he lacks are the religious credentials that would really allow him to play for all the marbles. This is why he has resumed his religious training to achieve the rank of marja al-taqlid, a formally accredited source of religious emulation, authorized to issue binding decisions regarding appropriate Islamic practice for his followers.

Second, recognizing that very little that's occurring in Iraq right now "bodes well" for long-term stability, I think Ryan Crocker's comparison of the Sadr movement to Hizbullah is actually an argument in favor of engagement with Hizbullah (and Hamas). For years the U.S. tried to ice Sadr out of the process, refusing to see that he spoke for a genuine constituency. So he played spoiler, steadily accruing political capital both through his opposition to the U.S. occupation and his movement's delivery of services and security that the occupation failed to provide. General Petraeus was wise enough to perceive, as U.S. and Israeli leaders have unfortunately not been in regard to Hizbullah and Hamas, that, the Sadrist's constant rhetoric notwithstanding, there were elements within the movement which could be negotiated away from violence and toward political accommodation, however halting and precarious that accommodation. This isn't to say that the arrangement that the U.S. seems to have worked out with Sadr is ideal, it certainly is not, just that it's precisely the sort of deal that we're supposed to believe is out of the question in regard to Hizbullah and Hamas (and Iran, for that matter).

More importantly, though, understanding the deal the U.S. has made with Sadr is key to understanding what the surge strategy is really all about, and why treating the surge as representing any kind of "success" for the Iraq war is a bit like celebrating winning twenty dollars at blackjack right after having lost a thousand at poker. In exchange for Muqtada's cooperation in reigning in the more extreme elements of his militia and his help in reducing violence from staggering to merely unacceptable levels, the U.S. has effectively ratified his control of a large, formerly mixed areas of Baghdad, secured his position as arguably Iraq's most popular Shi'ite political leader, and consigned thousands of Iraqis to life under a proto-state regime of religious fundamentalism that is about as authoritarian as Saddam's was, but with the added bonus of no liquor, no movies, and with women forced to veil themselves and and prohibited from skilled professions. And, as a double-bonus: This regime is oriented toward Shi'ite Iran.

--Matthew Duss