In the US search for enemy No. 1 in Iraq, with Saddam Hussein detained and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi buried, Moqtada al-Sadr appears to be taking the lead. Recent clashes between US and US-backed Iraqi soldiers and Sadr's Shiite militiamen, leading up to the spectacular show of force by his followers in their southern stronghold of Amarah last week, has catapulted him to the rank of principal threat to Iraq's stability.
It's a convenient notion, but misguided. The Sadrist movement cannot be reduced to its armed militia any more than the matter of militias can be reduced to its Sadrist version. His movement reflects a deep social divide among Shiites, while the proliferation of militias is more symptom than cause of Iraq's collapse.
The Iraq war brought to the fore a plethora of new actors and social forces. Of these, none is more enigmatic than Sadr. Although he comes from a prestigious line of Shiite clerics, he was the most unlikely of heirs. Young, with few religious credentials, he held a relatively insignificant position within his own family and was virtually unknown outside it. The former regime, so prompt to respond to threats, real or imaginary, never took him seriously, and Sadr was never in real jeopardy.
Following the US invasion, Sadr and his followers were dismissed as irrelevant; the US and its Iraqi allies considered his behavior inconsistent, his judgment erratic, his discourse inflammatory, and his followers a mob of fanatics. Three years later, the enormity of that miscalculation is plain. Sadrists play a key part in government and parliament. The young imam enjoys a cult-like following among Shiite masses. His Mahdi Army may have emerged bloodied from its early confrontations with US forces, but it is still standing – no small achievement given the disparity in forces.
As with so much else, the US got things wrong because it listened to those who said what it wanted to hear – in this case, former Shiite exiles who viewed Sadr at best as insignificant, at worst as a dangerous intruder. But while the exiles came from one social order, the war ushered in another. The ensuing upheaval emboldened the more disadvantaged, impoverished Shiites. They did not feel represented by the exiles any more than by the traditional clerical leadership, both of whom the US co-opted. The intra-Shiite division is not really about ideology, politics, or theology. It is, above all, about social class.
The US helped build a political process that made it easy, at first, to exclude Sadr. It was not so easy to cut him off from his social base. Because he was one of them, Sadr found ready support among poor Shiites. They identified with his subordinate family status and the vexations he endured, while his lack of education made them feel better about their own. Based in popular aspirations more than clerical tradition, the Sadrist movement is more social than religious. It articulates the frustrations, hopes, and demands of many who have no other representative and who remain marginalized in the post-Hussein order.
The Mahdi Army can be properly understood only in this context. Mahdi Army members make up for their dispossession and exclusion in various ways. They find employment as security personnel for ministries under Sadr's control, borrow ministry cars to carry out their missions, and get involved in racketeering and theft. Membership also has its symbolic rewards: Militiamen carry weapons, defy traditional social hierarchies, and impose their own moral standards.
In all this, the Mahdi Army differs little from the vast array of militias that have sprung up since the war. The state has failed to redistribute resources and ensure basic security, so private militias have stepped into the void, providing alternative means to acquire goods and services, gain protection, or – most perniciously – mete out their version of justice. As more armed groups compete for a limited share of wealth and power, one turns against the other, and their leaders – Sadr included – see their control gradually slip away.
That has been the case in recent months. The Mahdi Army's actions belie Sadr's appeals to his followers not to respond to "US provocations" and not to "fall in the trap" of a new cycle of open confrontations. Most notably, sectarian killings by Sadrists contradict what Sadr claims he stands for – the unity of Iraq.
What's the right response? Paradoxically, the most pressing step – dismantling the militias – should not be the first one. Instead, Iraq and the US should focus on limiting the militias' role to protecting civilians in places where government forces cannot. Meanwhile, they must take strong action against politi- cal assassinations, sectarian attacks, or attempts to overrun government offices, as happened last week in Amarah when Sadr forces attacked police stations.
Sadr is distracting US policymakers, and it may be comforting to designate him the latest public enemy No. 1. But the real issues that warrant attention are the social grievances that he echoes and the failings of the Iraqi government that feed the growth of armed militias. Neither problem can be addressed by military means, by prematurely pressing the Iraqi government to disarm the militias, or by singling out the Sadrists. There has been enough misdirection in this war already. Let's not choose the wrong target again.
• Robert Malley is Middle East program director and Peter Harling is a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.