|Muqtada returns to political scene
By Valentinas Mite
PRAGUE - Young Shi'ite cleric Muqtada
al-Sadr's movement is capitalizing on popular
discontent with the US-led occupation.
Yahia Said, a researcher on Iraq and other
transitional nations at the London School of
Economics, told RFE/RL that the United States has
been slow to present a withdrawal schedule and the
Iraqi government is unwilling to press the issue.
Said said that the size of a recent
demonstration of Muqtada's supporters indicates
that there is a groundswell of popular support for
the withdrawal of foreign troops. He said that
Muqtada is exploiting this situation, perhaps with
a view to winning the next elections.
"Opinion polls suggest that around 60% -
between 50 and 60% - of Iraqis want foreign troops
out of the country as soon as possible. And they
expect the government to do something about it,
the elected government," Said said.
said that although Muqtada's movement officially
boycotted the January parliamentary elections, it
has some two dozen sympathizers in parliament.
Most of those, he said, are within the ranks of
the dominant Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance bloc.
One of those sympathizers, Salam
al-Maliky, this week read out to the assembly
Muqtada's key demands. They include the withdrawal
of foreign troops, the speeding up of former
dictator Saddam Hussein's trial, and the release
of Iraqis held in US-run prisons.
though Muqtada is not in parliament, Said said he
has a lot of political influence. Muqtada is also
believed to have good relations with the Sunni
Association of Muslim Clerics.
that Muqtada's political weight is partly due to
his militia, the Mehdi Army, still being a
fighting force. "Nobody disarms in Iraq,
unfortunately," he said. "All these politicians
keep militias ready at hand in case the political
process doesn't go the way they like. It's an
Said added that there
could be a crisis if the Mehdi Army resurfaces.
Other analysts, however, are not convinced
of the extent of Muqtada's influence. David
Hartwell is Middle East editor at Jane's Sentinel
Security Assessments. He is not sure that Muqtada
is as influential as the anti-occupation
demonstration might indicate.
said, Muqtada's demands for US withdrawal are not
as radical as they might seem, as many parties now
in parliament have this demand in their election
programs. "I think the parties already within the
parliament will probably articulate most of what
al-Sadr is saying," he said. "I think al-Sadr is
able to mobilize those closest to him and to those
from al-Sadr City [a district of Baghdad]."
Despite Muqtada's demands and the growing
support for an end to the military occupation, it
doesn't look like US or coalition troops are
leaving any time soon.
During a surprise
visit to Baghdad this week, US Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld said that there was no exit
strategy in place for the some 140,000 US soldiers
stationed in Iraq. Rumsfeld said that their exit
depends on the readiness of Iraqi security forces,
who are being trained by the Americans. The
country's new leadership has also said Iraqi
forces are unprepared to take over from US-led
Hartwell says the US wants to pull
out troops only when the insurgency is brought
under control. "I think they are very, very
anxious not be seen to be getting out before the
insurgency has been, as they say, brought under
control, or at least brought to a level that is
manageable for the Iraqi security forces to take
over," he said.
Iraq has experienced a
surge of violence over the last week. On Sunday,
reports say militants killed at least eight Iraqis
in various attacks aimed at the police and
government employees. Meanwhile, the US military
said three American troops were killed and seven
others wounded as insurgents fired mortar rounds
late Saturday at a Marine base near Ramadi, west
Meanwhile, rumors continue to
swirl over what appears to be a mass
hostage-taking in a town south of Baghdad. US and
Iraqi troops have reportedly launched an operation
to free an estimated 150 Shi'ite hostages. The
hostages were taken in the town of Madaen, 40
kilometers outside of Baghdad. Sunni gunmen have
allegedly threatened to kill the hostages unless
all of the town's Shi'ites left.
analysts agree that Iraqi politicians understand
that without foreign troops the country could well
disintegrate into civil war.
(c) 2005, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the
permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio
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