(photo: absentee_redstate via Flickr)

From Reuters this afternoon:

Iraq’s fiercely anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has warned that U.S. military trainers will be targets if they stay in the country beyond a year-end deadline for American troops to leave.

The statement from Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia fought U.S. troops until 2008, follows a deal by Iraqi leaders to allow Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to negotiate with the United States on whether to keep trainers in Iraq after the deadline.

… “Whoever stays in Iraq will be treated as an unjust invader and should be opposed with military resistance,” Sadr said in a statement published on a pro-Sadr website on Saturday.

A government which agrees for them to stay, even for training, is a weak government.

… Sadr’s representatives walked out of last week’s discussions on U.S. troops, signaling possible dissension within the coalition.

Details of any deal are far from clear, and an agreement would need to pass through parliament, say U.S. officials, who want legal immunity for any residual U.S. military presence.

Jane Arraf of the Christian Science Monitor last week explained that the Maliki government is seeking to get around the Sadrists’ opposition in parliament by cutting a deal with Iyad Allawi — who was frozen out of the government after the most recent elections, even though Allawi’s party narrowly edged Maliki in the voting.

Despite the obvious touchiness of extending the presence (however limited) of an occupying army whose invasion eight years ago devastated the country, it’s not surprising that Maliki is siding with the most pro-American elements in Iraq’s politics (Allawi and the Kurdish parties) to keep us around… and it’s for the same reason that his on-again, off-again ally Sadr is objecting.

No, I’m not talking here about U.S. imperialism, a common progressive frame for Iraq that has largely outlived its usefulness (save perhaps for the pipe dreams of some dead-enders).  Even at the height of the American occupation, with their lives literally protected by our military, the elected Iraqi government managed to resist the most substantial U.S. demands regarding power-sharing, oil, and other issues — and our clout has substantially diminished since then.

Instead of being the means for the “victorious” invaders to impose their will, the U.S. military presence has instead been used by the Shiite factions at the top of the government to neutralize its armed opponents: first the Sunni-dominated insurgency, and then the Sadrist militias that had exerted local control in various areas.

And it’s not as if the latter represented a pure battle of oppressive occupiers versus a freedom-loving resistance — Maliki outpolled Sadr in the last elections, and a fair portion of his votes came from those urban areas that had once been Sadrist militia strongholds.  (Apparently, the residents didn’t find the latter’s de-facto control to be all that liberating).

So, in the multi-sided struggle for power that has consumed Iraq since Saddam Hussein was deposed, whatever American presence remains will be what is has been — a counterbalance to potential Sadrist armed rebellion… in short, a rival militia.  Which is why Sadr would rather see it gone.

And, I should add, which is just one more reason that we shouldn’t stay.  But you knew that already.