Another rabbit pops out of the Iraqi hat
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Who exactly did what in Karbala this week is still unclear. The only
thing certain is that the armed clashes between Shi'ite pilgrims and Iraqi
police, or members of the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, led to the death of
52 Iraqis and the injuring of over 300.
One story says that police began firing into the crowds of Shi'ite worshipers
because they chanted for the downfall of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki,
presumably under orders from Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The other says
that his Mahdi Army provoked
the violence in an attempted takeover of the holy shrine in the city.
The religious site in Karbala (100 kilometers southwest of Baghdad) is
currently controlled by the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) headed by
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. It is guarded by the Badr Brigade of the SIIC and members
of the Iraqi police, who are former members of the Badr Brigade and still
affiliated to Hakim. Briefly, back in 2003, it had been under control of
The Sadrists, it is believed, want to retake the shrine for a variety of
reasons. One is financial, since donations worth millions of dollars pour into
it every year from Shi'ite worshippers around the world - mainly Iran. Karbala,
and its shrine, is one of Iraq's wealthiest cities, profiting from pilgrims
around the year. Second, preaching from its 100 mosques gives whoever is in
control of Karbala a grand platform to market his views, ideology and recruit
new members into any political or military association. The city has 23
religious schools, all controlled by SIIC. In this case, the Mahdi Army would
be striving for control of Karbala mosques.
Third, the "struggle over Karbala" falls in line with a long and bloody feud
over Shi'ite leadership in Iraq, between the Sadr family and that of Hakim.
Muqtada covets anything that is controlled by Hakim. Regaining Karbala would be
a great bonus for the Mahdi Army, which is struggling to prop up its leader,
Muqtada, as the prime Shi'ite leader of Iraq instead of Hakim.
They say he is younger, more independent than Hakim, and more dedicated to
Iraqi nationalism. Supporters of this argument - many within Iraq - claim that
Muqtada wanted to use the overcrowded scene to stage a "coup" against Hakim in
Karbala. Things apparently did not go as planned and chaos ensued, followed by
outright bias from the security forces loyal to Hakim and his ally, Maliki.
Most of the worshippers killed in Karbala were Sadrists. Muqtada called for a
three-day mourning period for the dead. Hours after the fighting ended,
reprisal attacks vibrated through Iraq, targeting SIIC offices. One was at the
Kazimiyye neighborhood of Baghdad where four of Hakim's men were killed and the
SIIC office was set ablaze. East of Baghdad, more violence erupted between the
Badr and the Mahdi Army, leading to five dead and 20 injured.
The Iraqi prime minister, a one-time ally of both the Badr Brigade and Muqtada
and now at odds with the Mahdi Army, responded by visiting the scene (with his
defense minister and national security advisor) and dismissing Karbala's army
commander, imposing a city-wide curfew, and firing 1,500 police officers for
being unable to control - or prevent - the violence in one of the most
well-guarded and sacred shrines of Iraq.
Maliki also accused the culprits of having wanted to blow up the shrine of Imam
al-Hussein and then ordered the arrest of Hamid Kannush, a member of the city's
municipality who is a ranking member of the Sadrist bloc. Kannush was accused
of conspiracy in the Karbala violence. Maliki was effectively saying: the
Sadrists did it, although his office's official press release blamed "the
Maliki's office, however, did not actually explain what had happened in
Karbala. National Security Advisor Muwafaq al-Rabei, however, said that
militants wanted to occupy the two holy shrines of Imam al-Husseini and Imam
al-Abbas, "and topple the Maliki government".
Before things had cooled down there was another ironic (and puzzling) twist to
the story. Muqtada, who has captured the world's attention since 2003,
announced that he would be suspending all military activity against US forces
based in Iraq. He declared a six-month freeze on all operations of the Mahdi
Army, adding: "Nobody is authorized to declare [anything] in my name or that of
the Sadr office, except the media officer of the organization."
Effectively, Muqtada was laying down his arms at the feet of US President
George W Bush. Members of the Sadrist bloc came out with a multitude of press
declarations, saying that the Mahdi Army was not responsible in any way for
what happened in Karbala. Ahmad Sheibani, a spokesman for the Sadrist bloc,
said: "Sadr [Muqtada] stresses that what happened in Karbala was not fighting
between the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi government." He then added, "We call on
Sadrists not to target the offices of political parties all over Iraq and the
SIIC's offices in Sadr City [in Baghdad] in particular."
Washington welcomed the move and so did Britain. The Baghdad government,
however, did not. National Security Adviser Rabei said that the Maliki regime
would only welcome the move if the Mahdi Army stops its attacks and attempts at
"blowing up" the Maliki government. "I will see on the ground what is going to
happen," he said. "It is good news if it is true. If it happens it will reduce
violence in the country a great deal."
Why now? Why has Muqtada decided to come clean today after four years of
fighting the Americans? Apart from his family ancestry, which gave him a strong
and solid power base to launch his career from, Muqtada based his entire
legitimacy on opposing the US occupation of Iraq. The Muqtada-led insurgency of
2004 did wonders for his career and transformed him into a champion of Iraqi
independence in the eyes of millions of Iraqis. That, along with charity,
donations, and services to the poor is what made him so popular among the youth
of the Iraqi Shi'ite community. Looking back, however, we can see that he has
been changing colors - at a slow pace that has gone by almost unnoticed - since
Muqtada started out as anti-American, anti-political process in the post-Saddam
Hussein era and anti-Sunni. He abandoned the second pillar when he agreed to
join the parliamentary elections in 2005, allying himself with pro-Iran parties
in the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), despite his reservations about Iranian
behavior in Iraq. He swept Parliament with his 33 deputies, helped broaden the
power base of the UIA, then entered the government of Maliki with cabinet
ministers - thereby legitimizing an administration propped up by the Americans.
Something seemed strange and contradictory in his behavior, but nobody raised
questions out of respect, since the man had just ended a very popular uprising
against the US Army. In reward for legitimizing Maliki, he was allowed to keep
his Mahdi Army. Authorities knew that it was engaged in illegal practices and
was carrying out target attacks against the Sunnis but turned a blind eye.
Whenever the Americans tried to crack down on the Mahdi Army in Sadr City,
Maliki did not let them. So long as the Mahdi Army was supportive of the
political process, then it was given a carte blanche to operate with
powerful portfolios like education, commerce and health. Everybody in Iraq,
including former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Maliki and the Americans,
knew that Muqtada is a sectarian revolutionary cleric who has plenty of old
scores to settle with the Sunnis, punishing them collectively for having
produced and supported Saddam for 30 years.
He held them accountable for the blood of his father, who was killed by
Saddam's security services in the 1990s. So the problem was not Muqtada holding
arms. It was at whom he targeted these arms. As long as it was against the
Ba'athists, and members of al-Qaeda, neither Maliki nor the US seemed to mind
Muqtada. He actually got sucked into the political process - the same one he
had accused of being illegitimate - and found it very difficult to give up
power after he had tasted it. This was abandonment number one.
Muqtada then abandoned his anti-Sunni record, by stretching an arm of
reconciliation towards them, since late 2006, seeing them as natural
alternatives to his failing alliance with Maliki. There was common ground
between the Sadrists and the Sunnis after all, in opposing the US occupation,
opposing Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs, and opposing the carving up of Iraq
and granting of an autonomous district to the Shi'ites in southern Iraq. After
having accused them of being behind the first Samara bombing in February 2006,
Muqtada was now calling for Sunnis and Shi'ites to work together, first against
Maliki, then against the US. He calls for joint prayers within both sects, and
cooperation in military affairs and logistics to prevent the complete
disintegration of Iraq. This was abandonment number two.
Today, the circle is complete. Muqtada has changed course on all three pillars
of his legitimacy by suspending military warfare against the US; thereby
in effectabandoning his third original stance.
It is one thing to have an obscure militia giving up its fight against the US.
It is something completely different when that comes from an established,
feared, hated and admired leader like Muqtada. If he decides to team up with
the Americans (and indefinitely prolong his six-month truce) then this could
very much change the political landscape of Iraq.
Naturally, however, this would reduce his popularity among some Shi'ite
radicals, but Muqtada is too well established to lose his entire power base by
such a move. What he has done this week is similar to Yasser Arafat going to
Oslo to sign peace with the Israelis in 1993. Why did he get away with it?
Because Arafat was a well-established leader who had plenty of war medals to
boast of before the Palestinians. Although he had never literarily won a war
against Israel (on the contrary, he was defeated at every juncture of his
career) but Arafat had the skill, charm and legitimacy to turn his defeats into
victory - in Palestinian eyes. No defeat ever stuck to Arafat.
The same applies to Muqtada. He cannot conduct a truce with the Americans
before having obtained his war medals for having fought them in 2003,
regardless of the fact that he had been defeated. War gave him legitimacy to
talk peace today. But what keeps observers wondering is the timing for
Muqtada's u-turn. Arafat did it after 40 years of resistance to the Israelis.
He went to Oslo after being ejected from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and after most
Arab states had turned their backs on him. Muqtada is at the height of his
career. He stands where Arafat was in the 1960s - long before he even toyed
with the idea of peace with Israel.
Some possible scenarios:
1. Muqtada's announcement is a bluff to buy him time with the Americans while
waiting for his former ally and current enemy, Maliki, to fall. Maliki
supported Muqtada for long on the condition that the rebel-turned cleric
controls the Shi'ite street on his behalf. Because of the prime minister's
numerous mistakes, Muqtada finds it increasingly difficult - if not impossible
- to continue drumming up support for the prime minister. This becomes all the
more troublesome when Maliki cuddles up to Bush and refuses to call for a
timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Realizing that Muqtada was going to abandon him, Maliki decided to strike
first. He began a crackdown on the Mahdi Army (the same one that had supported
and protected him for 12 months) in early 2007. Muqtada realized that if this
continues he would have two enemies to face: the US and the Iraqi government.
He would certainly lose such an uneven battle, especially that Maliki is
supported by Iran while Muqtada is supported by nobody from the Iraqi
He had to chose: either the Americans or Maliki and placed his bet on the
United States - for the time being. The minute he is rid of Maliki, Muqtada's
"truce" will crumble and he will return to doing what he knows how to do best:
fighting the Americans and the Sunnis.
2. Muqtada is sincere in his truce, seeing that armed resistance to the
occupation will not succeed. If this is the case, then Iraqis and Americans
should give him the benefit of the doubt and do what it takes to keep him
satisfied and cooperative. This theory would say that Muqtada believes in
political dialog as well as military confrontation. He needs to further
legitimize himself in political circles, and with all groups in Iraqi society -
He cannot do that while carrying a gun. His new approach is to convince
everybody that he has changed face (while continuing to harbor anti-American
feelings). Perhaps Muqtada will live up to his truce with the US, but this does
not mean that he won't encourage other groups loyal to him to carry out attacks
on the Americans. They will do the fighting on his behalf - and take blame for
the dirty work - while he does the diplomacy with the US.
It might be too early to know what is going through Muqtada's mind at the
moment, although knowing Muqtada, the second option is simply, not like him.
What is clear, however, is that the man is not a political amateur anymore, as
everybody accused him of being back in 2003.
He is playing the dirty game of politics with style, tactics and a
lot of pragmatism and perhaps - dare we say it - vision. He knows what it
takes to survive the bloody Iraqi scene. If it means temporary cessation
of armed warfare against the US, then so be it. Survival ranks No 1 on his agenda.
Ending the occupation, or getting rid of Maliki, come in respectively at a
distant second and third.