Apparently, al-Sadr, who recently declared a shadow government and urged Iraqis to begin non-violent protests and open non-compliance with the coalition-backed government, is now seen as having gone too far. Traditionally, that boundary has been drawn at advocating violence against coalition troops, but the connection has not been shown and, frankly, may not be believed by much of Iraqi society.
However, that did not stop Coalition officials from claiming yesterday that al-Sadr was behind a recent spate of suicide bombings and political assassinations. It seems obvious that some of his followers have been violent, but does that doesn't necessarily equate to them being violent on al-Sadr's orders. His supporters number in the tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands and the totality of their deeds cannot be so conveniently linked to al-Sadr.
There is some reason to suspect that al-Sadr might not be willing to make that obvious connection for the Coalition. He said the following in a Times Magazine interview from May of this year:
"The U.S. will ignore the opinion of the Iraqi people and it will compose the new government according to its own desires," Muqtada told a press conference this week. For that reason, he says, he will decline any offer to rule the new Iraq. "I don't want the chair of the government because it will be controlled by the U.S. and I don't want to be controlled by the U.S." When asked if that meant he would want to attack the Americans, he snorted and replied with the colloquial Arabic equivalent of "Why would I want to f**k myself?" He declined further comment, implying that it would only get him into trouble.
It's unknown how the Iraqi people will react to mass arrests of al-Sadr supporters or of al-Sadr himself. He has been depicted by Coalition spokesmen as not having any real mainstream support amongst the Iraqi people, in comparison to more cooperative leaders such as al-Sistani. It's hard to judge whether this is true or not, however, as al-Sadr has far more support than he did before the war, in no small part due to the prestige of his father and the way his message resonates with younger Shi'ites. Will the Iraqi people see him and his followers as non-violent and well-meaning, or as a bunch of thugs? Can he convincingly pass himself off as another Ghandi or, perhaps more accurately, as a Malcolm X? Al-Sadr has openly advocated non-cooperation... but will he openly advocate violence? And, if he was arrested, will his followers organize huge, populist protests... or would they take arms against the Coalition forces? All this remains to be seen.