Two years ago this August, coalition ground troops wrested the Shi’a holy city of Najaf from Moqtada al Sadr’s mehdi army, a group of mostly Bagdhad-based thugs, louts and impoverished goons that had encamped there, threatening the clerical base of the more moderate Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. Sistani – the leading Shi’a cleric in Arabia – hewed to that sect’s tradition of separating the crerisy from mere political policy. Al Sadr, on the other hand, less invested than Sistani with theological street cred, used his revered father’s name to build a militia of his own out of human detritus of the Shi’a slums in eastern Baghdad, and sought to grasp his way to power through the barrel of a gun.
Having dealt his militia a stunning blow in Najaf, many of us hoped that final postage would be paid to this murderous upstart, who is still technically under warrant for the post-war killing of a rival cleric. Throughout the siege, coalition spokesmen emphasized the importance of killing or capturing al Sadr. But he was allowed to flee the wreckage that he and his people had wrought. And free, as it turns out, to cause trouble elsewhere.
The coalition flinched in the summer of 2004, alarmed by an Arab street whose outrage had been fanned by new and bloody-minded media outlets like Al Jazeera. Also of concern no doubt was the specter of coalition troops caught in a two-front war with both the Shi’a masses to the south and an emergently violent resistance in the Sunni heartland to the west. US policy makers – whose hopes for a quick and easy end to the violence looks almost charmingly naive two years on – looked the devil in the eye and blinked, striking what appears in retrospect to be a bargain with Sadr: He would withdraw to his own fastness in the Bagdhad slums, be free to criticize the occupation from the sidelines, and participate in the political process. For our own part, we would not seek any more to kill him.
The bill on that bargain has now come due: