This time, the reaction from the Shi'ite community has been restrained -- in large part because al-Sadr appears to be holding his forces in check. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with Reuel Marc Gerecht, a Middle East specialist with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, about the prospects for renewed clashes.
RFE/RL: Al-Sadr is calling for restraint after the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra just, in fact, as he did after the first bombing in February 2006. But after the first bombing, militias loyal to al-Sadr launched revenge attacks, something that hasn't happened this time. Part of that may be that the already ruined mosque isn't such a lighting rod a second time around. But another part may be that al-Sadr has added the implication that this time the United States is responsible, not Sunni groups. Is al-Sadr using this occasion to pile pressure on the United States to pull out of Iraq?
Reuel Marc Gerecht: If he can get the Americans out, then the odds of the radicals in the Shi'ite community becoming even more predominant -- or becoming predominant -- are fairly decent. I think he understands you would have a collapse of the center in Baghdad. And he has done rather well in the south, and the south is the model that you should fear; it is not the collision between the Sunnis and Shi'a in the central regions, which eventually the Shi'a will win. It's what is happening down in Basra and the south, where you are seeing profound internecine Shi'ite strife, and the radicals have done rather well because of that. The moderates have not.
RFE/RL: It does seem al-Sadr is at least as preoccupied with jockeying for power within the Shi'ite establishment as he is with what to do with Sunni militants and how to get the United States out of Iraq. How much of a challenge do his forces represent now to other, more established Shi'ite militias whose affiliated religious parties make up the bulk of the government?
Gerecht: Sadr has since 2003 become a much more organized force, I am not sure that militarily he is competitive with SCIRI, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [note: SCIRI recently changed its name to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). The Badr Organization is its armed wing.]. The Badr Organization is a professional paramilitary force and a head-on collision ... I am not sure Sadr would be prepared for that. But his military forces are getting stronger; they are not getting weaker.
RFE/RL: As al-Sadr presses for U.S. forces to leave, has he defined what kind of state he wants Iraq to be afterward and what role he would play in it?
Gerecht: He knows that he really can't become a religious leader, so he has to have a highly politicized religious system. I don't think an importation of the model of Velayat-e Faqih [Guardianship of the Jurist] even on an Iranian model, where you have an expressly, obviously political cleric in charge of the state and highly politicized mullahs who really aren't very religiously accomplished dominating society and politics -- that pattern and model really doesn't work terribly well in Iraq and you don't find even amongst the radicals that much sympathy or understanding for the Iranian model.
So, it's not clear that he actually at this time has an idea. And what is important to know is that Sadr has never stated that he is opposed to the implementation of some kind of democratic system. To my knowledge, no Shi'ite radical yet has backed away from the structure that they have or suggested that the structure they have is illegitimate. I think if he were to do so he would probably lose ground. So, he is conscious of that and he doesn't have a free hand. He knows that inside of the Shi'ite community, it is a competitive system for allegiances.
RFE/RL: In pressing for the United States to leave Iraq, al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army has fought pitched battles with U.S. forces, notably in August 2004. Now he seems to have abandoned armed confrontation as too costly and accepted the U.S. security surge into areas his forces control. Why?
Gerecht: He did not object to the American surge into Sadr City. [The Al-Mahdi Army] has been restrained, but it has done things that perhaps were helpful to him -- that is, it removed Shi'ite radicals who were not following his orders. And that is not a bad thing. So, Sadr has played a very good game and at times a cautious game. So he is not hell-bent for war, at least not with the United States.
RFE/RL: Finally, it would seem al-Sadr might have a hard time persuading the Shi'ite community that someone other than Sunni radicals -- i.e., the United States -- bombed the Samarra mosque this week. How can he hope that such a conspiracy theory will be accepted, even when there is no evidence to sustain it?
Gerecht: Conspiracy theories can occupy different parts of the brain simultaneously. So, there can be one part of the brain that knows the truth, that is that it wasn't the Americans or the Israelis that did it, that it was an affiliate of Al-Qaeda. It could be the Iraqi Sunnis in conjunction with Al-Qaeda or another radical Islamist group, which is probably the case. But at the same time, many individuals can want to believe in a greater Iraqi cause; they can want to believe that the Sunni Muslims are not beyond redemption, that they can see the light, that we can have an Iraqi state -- all these things can cohabitate and not cause that much contradictory tension.
Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating against the U.S. presence in Iraq in October 2006 (epa)
A RADICAL CLERIC. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is a key figure in Iraq. He heads the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia and a political bloc that is prominent in parliament and the government. His ties to Iran have also provoked concerns in some quarters.