It’s tough being a political leader in Iraq these days. President Jalal Talabani is at the prestigious Mayo Clinic seeking treatment for an array of obesity-related ailments. Vice President Abdul Aziz Hakim was just diagnosed with cancer in Houston, and has opted to undergo a brutal round of chemotherapy in Tehran. Prime Minister al-Maliki is faced with almost daily threats from Americans who intimate that his days are numbered, and that he will soon be assassinated or otherwise swept from the political scene in Baghdad.
In the meantime, the American nemisis Moqtada al-Sadr, a powerful force behind the scenes in the al-Maliki government, seems to be busily preparing for a more robust role in government as soon as al-Maliki falls. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported on al-Sadr’s recent political maneuvers:
The 33-year-old populist is reaching out to a broad array of Sunni leaders, from politicians to insurgents, and purging extremist members of his Mahdi Army militia who target Sunnis. Sadr’s political followers are distancing themselves from the fragile Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is widely criticized as corrupt, inefficient and biased in favor of Iraq’s majority Shiites. And moderates are taking up key roles in Sadr’s movement, professing to be less anti-American and more nationalist as they seek to improve Sadr’s image and position him in the middle of Iraq’s ideological spectrum.
Notwithstanding al-Sadr’s efforts to appear more moderate, if he or his proxies secure high office in the new government, this will certainly provoke the ire of the Bush administration.
Today London’s Independent reports in a piece filed by Patrick Cockburn what has long been rumored: in August 2004, American forces in Iraq planned to assassinate al-Sadr, whom they increasingly viewed as a disruptive, unpredictable and hostile force.
The US Army tried to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr, the widely revered Shia cleric, after luring him to peace negotiations at a house in the holy city of Najaf, which it then attacked, according to a senior Iraqi government official. The revelation of this extraordinary plot, which would probably have provoked an uprising by outraged Shia if it had succeeded, has left a legacy of bitter distrust in the mind of Mr Sadr for which the US and its allies in Iraq may still be paying. “I believe that particular incident made Muqtada lose any confidence or trust in the [US-led] coalition and made him really wild,” the Iraqi National Security Adviser Dr Mowaffaq Rubai’e told The Independent in an interview. It is not known who gave the orders for the attempt on Mr Sadr but it is one of a series of ill-considered and politically explosive US actions in Iraq since the invasion. In January this year a US helicopter assault team tried to kidnap two senior Iranian security officials on an official visit to the Iraqi President. Earlier examples of highly provocative actions carried out by the US with little thought for the consequences include the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the Baath party.
The reverential tones of Cockburn’s reporting seem rather out of place. Al-Sadr was wanted for a homicide at the time, and his Mahdi Army was actively engaged in firefights with Army and Marine units in Najaf. Nevertheless, he had by the summer of 2004 established himself firmly in the leadership of his father’s Sadrist movement–an extremely powerful political force among Iraq’s Shiia majority.
Observers have long suggested that the Bush Administration has embraced targeted killings–political assassinations–as a tactic to be used in connection with the war on terror. The legality of such a move is extremely questionable. In concept, it could occur only with specific authorization of President Bush, and even then would appear to be at odds both with established principals of international law and traditional American military doctrine. President Abraham Lincoln gave an order in 1863 outlawing assassinations as a military tactic. However, Executive Order 12333, issued December 4, 1981, by Ronald Reagan established a process through which they might be authorized but generally were prohibited. The Independent’s report suggests the existence of a further secret executive order by George W. Bush which authorizes targeted killings in the war on terror, something which has long been suspected by national security law experts.