Certainly it's easy to point a finger at al-Qaeda. Of course, al-Qaeda wasn't in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion, but they are now and we have to deal with it. But there is danger in seeing al-Qaeda around every corner; their actual numbers and strength may be overestimated or even purposely inflated to garner support for a continued U.S. troop presence. In fact, even the State Department admits there are likely less that 1,000 al-Qaeda-related insurgents in Iraq, making them responsible for less than 2% of violence according to the Congressional Research Service.
So we've bought off a lot of the Sunnis we used to be fighting and, at least for now, they're working with us against al-Qaeda, but al-Qaeda's role is relatively small. So who is causing all the trouble you're hearing about in Iraq? We turn to the Shi'ite side, and to the man of whom it's impossible to find a flattering picture on the internet: Muqtada al-Sadr.
Most of the media reports of the recent fighting in Basra and Baghdad assume Sadr and his Mahdi Army are the "Bad Guys" creating violence and turmoil, and the government forces, backed by the U.S., are the legitimate authorities trying to bring peace and order. But just as you can't tell a book by its cover or a man from how sinister he happens to look in his picture, this is a dangerous oversimplification.
While elements of Sadr's movement have been guilty of sectarian cleansing and continued acts of violence despite the cease-fire Sadr declared last summer, there is no evidence he has condoned their attacks and in fact seems to actively try to reign them in. Meanwhile, Sadr seems to be gaining in political sophistication, coming to the bargaining table yesterday in sharp contrast to his actions in 2004 (when he ordered his militia to fight to the death in Najaf).
And we can't afford to ignore the fact that Sadr has a strong base of power and is likely to remain an important player in Iraq. According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post,
It's hard to imagine a stable future Iraq that doesn't have support from the poor Shiites who follow Sadr. A sign of their power is the rising last week in Shiite neighborhoods of eastern Baghdad. If the Shiite community en masse goes into the streets, the American mission is effectively finished; we can't fight 60 percent of the people.While Muqtada al-Sadr may not make the short list of U.S. allies in Iraq, counting him as an enemy is neither prudent nor entirely accurate. Last month, the International Crisis Group (ICG) recommended that U.S. and Iraqi military forces continue focusing on legitimate military targets and try to encorporate Sadr in the political process at every opportunity. The man isn't going away and neither are his supporters, and this week's failed attempt to take the Mahdi stronghold of Basra proves the necessity of implementing the ICG recommendations as official policy immediately.
For a breakdown of some of the key power-players in Iraq's civil war, check out this Reuters article.