I commented very early on that Saddam Hussein's controversial execution appeared to have all the earmarks of a U.S. psyop operation designed to exacerbate enmities between Sunnis and followers of Iraqi Shi'ite nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. At the time I wrote:
So how does a crew of open Sadrists get into Saddam's presumably elite hand-picked execution squad? And how do they get away with such rude misbehavior? And how does an unofficial video get made and released?
If I didn't know better, I might suspect that the whole thing was staged to make the Sadrists look bad and to deepen sectarian divisions in Iraq. Especially since they did it on the first day of Eid al-Adha.
Writer Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya has written an excellent article making the same point. Nazemroaya points out:
The execution of the Iraqi leader was carefully timed to occur during a sensitive time for Muslims. The execution fell during Eid ul-Adha, a holy day for Muslims. The date of the execution is perhaps one of the most compromising signals that the execution was indeed a psychological operation (PSYOP) launched by the United States.
The execution date was deliberately chosen during a sacred period for Muslims to exploit a divide between Shiites and Sunni. This sacred day was marked on Saturday, December 30, 2007 by Sunni Muslims in Iraq and was observed a day later on Sunday, December 31, 2007 by Iraq’s Shiites.
Al-Sadr himself himself denied that he or his followers were involved in the execution. The following quote is an extract of an interview of al-Sadr that was published in the Italian journal La Repubblica, translated from the Italian by Strategytalk's own parvati_roma:
Caprile: It has been said that amongst the crowd watching Saddam’s execution you too were present. Is this true?
Al Sadr: “This is absolute rubbish. If I’d been there they’d have killed me too. As for Saddam, I certainly shed no tears for the man who massacred my family and tens of thousands of my people. But if it had been up to me, I’d have had him executed in a public square so all the world could see.”
Caprile: Even if you weren’t there, can you deny that the execution room was full of your men?
Al Sadr: “No, those were not my men. They were people paid to discredit me. To make it seem I was the person really responsible for that hanging. The proof lies in the fact – just listen to the audio – that when they recited my prayer they left out some essential parts. A mistake that not even a single child in Sadr City would ever have made. The aim was to make it seem Moqtada was the real enemy of the Sunnis. And they succeeded.
Al-Sadr is the greatest threat to the U.S. agenda in Iraq at this point not because of the strength of his militia (it is poorly trained and armed, and took a severe beating in its only engagement with U.S. forces in 2004) but because of his political opposition to two of the main U.S. political goals in Iraq and the fact that his public support and popularity is rapidly increasing. He is an Iraqi nationalist who opposes foreign influence in the country and supports a strong central government. This means he wants U.S. troops out as soon as possible, with no military bases left behind. It means that he is suspicious of Iranian influence in his country and of groups (such as SCIRI and its Badr Brigade militia) that have close ties to Iran. It also means that he will oppose long term foreign influence over Iraq's oil industry. Although al-Sadr has not officially announced his opposition to the proposed hydrocarbon law or the U.S. backed proposal to amend the Iraqi Constitution in order to effectively implement the law, it is quite likely that he does oppose it in its present form. The U.S. is certainly acting as if he opposes it. It has been urging Maliki to purge the government of Sadrists in favor of Shi'ites who belong to more compliant factions such as SCIRI.
The U.S. is fearful that the Sadrists will forge a political alliance with Sunni nationalists that share their agenda for a strong, independent united Iraq that is free from foreign influence. Al-Sadr has had discussion with Sunnis to this effect, and has offered an alliance with Sunnis that are willing to condemn Sunni radical groups and the oppression of Shi'ites under Saddam:
Caprile: In any case, the war between you and the Sunnis goes on.
Al Sadr: “It is true that we are all Muslims and we are all sons of the same land, but they must first distance themselves from the Saddamists, from the radical groups, from Bin Laden’s men, as well as repeating their “No” to the Americans. All we’re asking is for the ulemas to accept these conditions of ours. They haven’t yet done so.”
To many ordinary Iraqis, Muqtada al-Sadr represents a better way forward than what is being offered by more radical elements or by the political parties that have been coopted by the U.S. and Iran. There has been a groundswell of political support for him, especially among rural Shi'ite tribesman in southern Iraq. If new elections were held today, the Sadrists would substantially increase their representation in the Iraq parliament, dealing a final death blow to the U.S. agenda.
The U.S. is accordingly left with a stark choice: Accept defeat, or eliminate al-Sadr. The Saddam execution was part of a strategy to marginalize him, and it had some initial success. However many Iraqis, both Sunni and Shi'a, are wising up to the real state of affairs in Iraq. If the U.S. tries to physically eliminate al-Sadr, it will likely light a brushfire of widespread resistance in southern Iraq and in Baghdad. If this happens, the stakes in Iraq will have been raised considerably.