Since the U.S.-led take-over of Iraq, now more than five years ago, a wide range of Iraqis have become mad as hell, or perhaps more accurately mad enough to make hell with both the U.S. military and against each other. Some are even mahdi as hell, resulting in the Mahdi Army virtually commanded by Muqtada al-Sadr, the grandson of a well-known shi’a grand ayatollah. This renegade militia is the major homegrown thorn in the side of President Nuri al-Maliki’s Green Zone republic. Starting in October, 2003, Muqtada put into play a shadow Islamic government and by August of 2004 he called on his supporters to fight the Coalition forces. For almost three years there has been a loose ceasefire, but that was shattered recently when al-Maliki attempted to oust the Mahdi Army from Basra. By all accounts, al-Maliki’s efforts were a failure at the time. As reported in Time:

The Iraqi military’s offensive in Basra was supposed to demonstrate the power of the central government in Baghdad. Instead it has proven the continuing relevance of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, stood its ground in several days of heavy fighting with Iraqi soldiers backed up by American and British air power. But perhaps more important than the manner in which the militia fought is the manner in which it stopped fighting. On Sunday Sadr issued a call for members of the Mahdi Army to stop appearing in the streets with their weapons and to cease attacks on government installations. Within a day, the fighting had mostly ceased. It was an ominous answer to a question posed for months by U.S. military observes: Is Sadr still the leader of a unified movement and military force? The answer appears to be yes.

Today’s news reports that the Iraqi Army has apparently retaken Basra, prompting al-Sadr to threaten an all-out war against al-Maliki and the Coalition forces. On his website today, al-Sadr said:

“I’m giving the last warning and the last word to the Iraqi Government, [to come] to its senses and takes the path of peace. If they don’t come to their senses and curb the infiltrated militias, then we will declare an open war until liberation.”

Sounds like a typical scenario for a video game: World of Warcraft preempts Operation Enduring Freedom. Well, in a way this should not be surprising. Unlike his grandfather, Muqtada al-Sadr is no religious scholar, although he has received a politically inspired cleric-cloaked status with support from Iran. Indeed, al-Sadr may be taking his cues from Second Life, creating an avatar to imagine a post-Saddam Iraq that is nothing like that envisioned by the neocons five years ago. Consider that al-Sadr the younger has been dubbed “Mullah Atari” by some because of his strong youthful attraction to gaming, an endorsement not without admiration in the hardcore gaming world. The question remains of whether experience on World of Warcraft can lead to success in the bloodied context of statecraft for Iraq.

If you want to find out more about al-Sadr, he is all over the net. He even has an entry in the Arabic version of Wikipedia. Search for him on Youtube and you can find snippets of his speeches, including one where he attacks the president of Yemen for going after a Zaydi rebellion by another son of a shi’a cleric. You can find the “Sadr House Rules” from Jon Stewart as Comedy Central presents a Hollywood-style biography of al-Sadr. Nor is the Mahdi Army leader a stranger to the blogosphere. A Sumerian Girl, a 20-year old atheist who wants her country back, f’s the cleric, adding “let him love iraq or whatever the shit u saying but loving iraq doesn’t mean that I need to follow him and his naive stupid thinking ..” Some savy domain master cornered, which is a right-wing anti-Sadr site that treats the viewer to a commercial for Lite Beer and a banner for John McCain. There is even a poll, where you can vote on the burning question: “Is Muqtada al-Sadr Full of Shiite?” Whatever else, reporting on al-Sadr shows that quite a bit of media-blitzed shi’ite coverage has fanned the cyberspace hits on this key player in Iraq’s current quagmire.

Daniel Martin Varisco