This year I've had the opportunity to meet two of history's henchmen in my travels to end the War of Iraq: Karl Rove and Muqtada al-Sadr.
Both are well known for their expertise in the art of political manipulation and each could be the other's doppelganger.
They are charismatic and lust for power. Neither possesses strong physical features or a college degree. They have risen to prominence in their respective countries but hold diametric views on the issue of the continued occupation of Iraq.
Rove says the U.S. must remain in Iraq as part of the global war on terrorism. Al-Sadr demands an immediate withdraw of all coalition forces.
Al-Sadr, a cleric-cum-politician is heir to a powerful Shi'ia clerical dynasty with a history of helping the poor of Iraq. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, urged Shi'ia and Sunnis to worship together and called for religious freedoms before he was assassinated in 1999 (assumedly by Saddam's agents).
Sadr's followers hold thirty parliament seats and control several ministries. But, since the beginning of the war al-Sadr has shown a definite lack of gratitude for "liberation" and has sent his Medhi Army to battle U.S. forces on numerous occasions.
Karl Rove rose from humble beginnings to become the White House Chief of Staff through winning strategies that combined religious fundamentalism, tax cuts, and executive activism. He became the brain behind George W. Bush's rise in politics after moving his political consultancy to Texas (what Southerners call "carpetbagging") in the 1970's.
Known as an aggressive campaigner, Rove helps fashion American policy and indirectly commands U.S. involvement in Iraq.
I met Muqtada al-Sadr at his headquarters in Najaf last September with a team of skeptical human rights workers. This was my third trip to Iraq during the war. On every occasion, I attempt to better understand the complex factors that stand in the way of resolving this conflict while meeting the various players.
We were escorted into his compound with cameras rolling and al-Sadr launched into a prepared speech about the rights of Iraqis for self-determination. Our faces showed negative reaction to his hyperbole so he quickly cut the campaign rhetoric to talk directly with us.
We sat and discussed the upcoming elections, war and reconstruction, the role of religion in civic affairs, and human rights. I was particularly taken by Sadr's concern for terrorism and his interest in American views. But he also stressed that while Islam is a religion of peace, his militia was prepared to "oust the foreign occupation" if things didn't improve.
Dinner with Karl Rove last week was similar (except the tea was iced).
I listened to Rove at a fundraiser in Austin in a room full of Republican faithful while my antiwar activist friends chanted outside the ballroom doors. Karl opined on national security, the upcoming elections and Iraq.
"If Democrats want to frame this year's election around who's stronger on national security, that will be a debate we want, a debate we should have...," said Rove.
Rove acclaimed the "goal of victory" in Iraq and derided proponents of peace. Most attendees appeared to agree with his framing of "national security" as a means to win political power, but a surprising number remained pensively silent throughout.
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