Looking at the NYTimes lead story online Sunday morning alongside other recent, credible reports of what’s happening in Iraq lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Times offered a rather dubious and misleading account. The article deals primarly with state of the Sadrist militia, the reasons for the recent ebb in violence, and perspectives on the future. Sabrina Tavernise tells us that the Madhi Army, under the control of the anti-American cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, has been seriously weakened and it’s future is in doubt. She quotes several workers in Baghdad who denounce the Sadrists’ and deny they are doing any good for anybody anymore (though it is not explained how their "serving the people" was actually being done in the first place). Several people are quoted blaming the Sadrists for criminal behavior like extortionary tactics towards small business owners in Sadr City, a poor and highly populated section of Baghdad, crimes which have apparently lessened along with the general violence. Along with Iraqi citizens, she also uses as sources American military personnel as well as an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who currently has support from both the American and Iranian governments. Al-Sadr’s spokesman also has a couple of lines which could probably best be summarized as defensive denials in response to accusations raised in the article. A rival Shia sect led by another cleric named Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim is said to be aiding Sunnis in re-integrating Baghdad. No other perspectives were expressed, despite the fact that the Sadrists have the largest number of seats in the Iraqi parliament.
Reading the Times article, a reader could easily conclude that the Mahdi Army, viewed as the primary obstacle to peace, has recently suffered a potentially crippling military defeat, that the future of the political support of the Sadrist movement is in serious doubt, and that the average Iraqi has no qualms about American occupation forces.
There is plenty of evidence showing that these conclusions need to met with a great deal of skepticism.
Compared to similar reports, the Times article reveals several gaping holes in its coverage. Most glaringly, it was not mentioned that Al-Sadr, who is the most ardent critic of the US occupation and whose primary support comes from the Shia underclass, had previously agreed to a truce with the Al-Maliki government. This is a stunning omission that would seem to obscure any clear view of what is actually happening in Iraq at the moment. There are some sources who contend that this ceasefire is the primary reason for the decrease in bloodshed since the American force escalation of 2007. The historically powerful Mahdi Army has not in fact suffered any military defeat, as is implied by the Times, but has withdrawn voluntarily from areas they previously controlled. This seems to be a crucial distinction. Another recent report in the Christian Science Monitor also did not mention the truce, but gave a more nuanced look at the power struggle happening in Iraqi Shia politics, mentioning that Al-Sadr has been urging his militiamen to turn to more charitible community services. Another highly credible source, in explaining the recent decrease in violence, points to the simple fact that less people are dying these days in Bahgdad because there are less people around left to kill. The erection of concrete walls throughout the city by American forces in order to prevent any comingling between Shia and Sunni is seen as yet another factor.
As for the future of the Sadrist movement, the question seems to be less about whether they are through as a power player in Iraqi politics then exactly how much they stand to be weakened in the upcoming October provincial elections. The Sadrists were only weeks ago a powerful political and military force. By all accounts, their popularity has suffered recently. However, considering the Sadr family’s historical stature among Iraqi Shia, it sounds unrealistic to write them off. Nir Rosen, who rivals Patrick Cockburn, the author of an engrossing and highly informative book on the socio-political history of Iraqi Shia, for title of best Western journalist in Iraq, underscores that the Sadrists are "the only genuine mass movement in Iraq, with roots that long predate the fall of Saddam." Cockburn points out in a recent piece for The Independent of London that, in anticipation of the all-important provincial elections coming up in October, American intelligence had estimated earlier this year that the Sadrists would probably receive 60% of the vote in Baghdad and Southern Iraq. Just how much that number has dropped is unknown at this point
Considering that a vast majority of Iraqis (77% Shia, 95% Sunni) have, along with their parliamentarians, consistently opposed the presence of American forces in Iraq, it’s unfortunate not to see the smallest hint of this extremely popular viewpoint in the Times article. While the radical and historically very popular Mahdi Army is demonized as public enemy #1 for having extorting $13,000 a day from Sadr City gas stations and attacking those who disagree with them, no mention is made of the crimes that have been committed by the even more powerful Coalition forces and American military contractors, including the billions of dollars of Iraqi and American cash that have– whoops!– disappeared.
Unfortunately, the NYTimes, as it has done with such tragic consequences in the past, appears to be offering a distorted version of the facts and is once again blindly taking the perspective of the Bush Administration without offering an adequate range of opposing viewpoints.