Dancing With the Devil

"If you dance with the Devil, the Devil doesn’t change. The Devil changes you."

Nassar al-Rubiae,  head of the Sadrist block in the Iraqi Council of Representatives, made common cause with members of our Congress who supported the a firm timetable for a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in an interview we had in Iraq.  He repeated this talking point in a subsequent interview with Asia Times online, and it features in the open letter Moqtada al-Sadr recently sent to President Bush.  His remark in our interview was no random accusation: it was part a deliberate PR campaign to exploit the Democrats’ action on the war supplemental legislation and thus legitimize the Sadrist agenda. In short, radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr wants the U.S. to pull out of Iraq immediately and leave the country to the tender ministrations of the extremists among the Shia majority. 

As Moqtada al-Sadr’s second in command and voice in parliament, Mr. al-Rubiae is a powerful figure in Iraq. His admirers point out that he is "one of Iraq’s top political players."  In other words, he’s not some blow-hard extremist on the fringes of Iraqi society.  He’s a power broker who, at least until recently, has had the ear of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  As such, Mr. al-Rubaie represents a particular type of devil –the kind you are tempted to deal with because fighting them is so very difficult, and sometimes appears hopeless.

Some hope the Sadrists can be brought into the political fold and become contributing members of Iraqi society.  After all, Mr. al-Sadr comes from a distinguished Shia family; his ancestors were part of the intellectual elite of Iraq in the early part of the 20th century.  More recently, several prominent members were murdered or disappeared because of their opposition to Saddam.  Most notable was Moqtada’s father, Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr, who was gunned down with two of his sons in 1999. 

Mr. al-Sadr’s vision is of an Iraq defined by extremism and vengeance, which would have little common ground with moderate governments in the region, and none at all with the United States.  Asked in our interview if he might consider offers to improve conditions in the slum that is Sadr City in exchange for political reconciliation, Mr. al-Rubaie bluntly declared that his faction is not interested in negotiations.  Why should they be?  We, and the government of Iraq, have nothing that they want.  They do not care about improved services and economic revitalization because they want to keep alive the flames of discontent that fuel their movement. 

Take, for example, Mr. al-Sadr’s approach to justice in Iraq.  For him, justice equals revenge.  This runs counter to the defining principals of the new Iraqi judicial system, which has made impressive, if un-newsworthy, strides over the past two months.  The government of Iraq has stepped up efforts to modernize investigative techniques that will ensure fair trials, and started to apply the laws of the land to all citizens, regardless of their sect or the nature of their crimes.  In other words, things that might have been winked at under the old regime are now being prosecuted.  Contrast this with Sadrist "justice," as described to me by the top American legal advisor in Iraq, Colonel Mark Martins: 

"[These] extrajudicial killings — execution style killings which are typically done by Shia, Shia death squads, in the middle of the night — people going through Sunni neighborhoods in the dead of night and grabbing someone — typically military age males — and brining them to a Shia neighborhood, maybe having a Sharia court, maybe not, and then shooting them in the head…we can count the bodies quite well."

And there in a nutshell you have the governing philosophy of Moqtada al-Sadr: sectarian violence and terror masquerading as Shia nationalism.  No wonder he wants the Americans out of Iraq, for the Americans, while useful in toppling Saddam, have proven a hindrance to the systematic blood-letting that he proposes.  And so Mr. al-Rubaie is engaging with the press to suggest that maybe they’re not so unreasonable in proposing that all U.S. troops get out of Iraq by January 1, 2008.  After all, the 2006 election and the subsequent actions of the new congressional majority indicate — to the Sadirists — that a majority of Americans agree with them. 

Another insidious element in this campaign is a new effort to paint the slow development of the Iraqi Security Forces as a deliberate tactic on the part of the Bush administration to keep Iraq dependent on the U.S.  And there’s an interesting twist here.  Mr. al-Sadr and Mr. al-Rubaie know perfectly well that should the supplemental appropriations bill crisis drag on much longer in Washington, the first place the shortfall will be felt will be at the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq.  How easy will it be for the Sadrists to then trumpet the subsequent reductions in equipment and training as proof positive of their accusations?  Every day the budget crisis continues brings us closer to such an impasse, which would embolden and empower these devils masquerading as politicians.

Of course, there are attractions to dancing with the devil.  The devil tends to be more light on his feet than his plodding counterparts. A recent New York Times editorial characterizes Mr. al-Sadr as a "charismatic demagogue with an intimidating private army, a potent political party and an impressive capacity for sending his followers into the street."  Mr. al-Maliki, by contrast, is "a colorless and ineffective politician."  The Times derides Mr. al-Maliki for wanting to replace the flamboyant Sadrist cabinet members who have threatened to resign with boring "technocrats" who would focus on actually making the government work.  Certainly, they would make for fewer headlines in the Times, but even so, I think that by the sober light of day we, and the Iraqis, would be much better served by such a policy.  It might be time to listen to the moderate Iraqis who plead against a precipitous withdrawal on the Sadrist calendar and contrast their motives with those of Mr. al-Sadr.

War opponents in Congress could protest that it is not their fault that Mr. al-Sadr and Mr. al-Rubaie have co-opted them in their campaign to force a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.  They could disavow the connection and complain that their principled stance has been distorted and perverted into something they never intended.  But it’s hard to say for sure, because they have been uniformly silent on this topic.  Does their silence suggest that Democrats are so entrenched in their opposition to the war that they are unwilling to even distance themselves from the statements of an enemy? 

When you find yourself on a course parallel to that of Moqtada al-Sadr, you have to reassess what you say, what you do, even what you think.  It should be uncomfortable to find yourself waltzing with the devil in the pale moonlight.