The NYT op-ed page recently offered this remarkable thesis: The hope for a successful liberal order in Iraq lies in great part with Ahmad Chalabi and Moktada Al-Sadr. In the case of the latter, "Sadr and the occupation have common cause on the issue that matters most: a stable democratic outcome." Indeed, the extraordinary Mr. Sadr has not only "shown a knack for politics since he emerged from the rubble of Saddam Hussein's fall," he is now showing "a willingness to play Alexander to Ahmad Chalabi's Aristotle."
That's right: "Aristotle." When Chalabi was associated with the U.S., Iraqis reportedly despised him as a bank embezzler, a willing puppet, and a carpetbagging exile. Now, argues this piece, these same Iraqis credit him above all others with ridding them of Saddam. The piece's bottom line: If the U.S. and the Allawi regime know what's good for them, they "would do well to stop seeing these men as enemies and start working with them on building a free Iraq."
That's one point of view. Here's another: The only thing Sadr's gang of thugs has shown a knack for is murder, theft, and mayhem. The U.S. charges Sadr with the murder last April of reformist Shiite cleric Abdul Majid Al-Kho'i, killed while praying in the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. Sistani reportedly believes that at the time of the murder, Sadr's followers stole the key to the Najaf shrine (there's a literal key), and that they have since helped themselves to the money and valuables left there by pilgrims. During Alexander the Great's most recent fumbling attempt at an "uprising," in the course of which he took the Najaf shrine hostage and allowed his followers to blast at it from within, nobody responded to his call.
Few Iraqis seem to think that Sadr has been giving many orders; they suspect he is being manipulated by others. That's because Mr. Sadr's reputation among most Iraqis is not very sparkling. The country's senior clerics have been consistently dismissive of him, perhaps because Sadr is a madrassa dropout; regional news services tend to identify him not as a religious leader, but as a "leader of an armed band." (A number of Iraqi observers even suspect that Sadr's actions have been coordinated with Zarqawi's gang of foreigners, who have been waging war against Iraqi civilians. Whenever Mr. Sadr's thugs make a move, they note, the car bombs that target Iraqi men, women, and children seem to subside. When Sadr fails, as he invariably has, the car bombs resume.)
There are a lot of Sadr stories in circulation among Iraqis. They may or may not be true, but they give some hint of the regard in which many Iraqis hold Sadr. He features in these stories as "Poor Moktada." The "Poor Moktada" of these tales is mentally deranged. Indeed, this "Poor Moktada" has been in and out of institutions because he presented a physical danger to his own family. This "Poor Moktada" won't even look at you in the face when you address him. Some or even all such "Poor Moktada" stories may well be untrue, but they suggest that many Iraqis perceive Sadr as something less than an Iraqi Alexander.
An amazed Iraqi take on the NYT piece can be found here.