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    Middle East
     Sep 18, 2007
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Muqtada strikes another political blow
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - "We have absolutely no intention of pushing Prime Minister [Nuri al-]Maliki out," said a spokesman for the Sadrist alliance on Sunday. This came after Muqtada al-Sadr finally decided to walk out of the ruling Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).

For obvious reasons, the prime minister did not believe the assurances, realizing that ever since he broke with Muqtada this year, the rebel-turned-politician has been bent on bringing down

the entire Maliki administration in revenge.

Muqtada has been giving Maliki nightmares - serious ones. Step 1 of his "coup" was six of his supporters walking out on the Maliki cabinet, depriving it of Sadrist legitimacy and keeping key positions vacant, such as Transport, Commerce, and Health. Maliki promised a cabinet reshuffle in the summer to fill in the vacant posts, but to date he has not done so.

Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Maliki government, refused to comment on the latest embarrassing drawback, saying: "It is not our affair. It is the affair of Parliament." This was the last thing, however, that Maliki needed, given that he has already lost most of his parliamentary allies, mainly the Sunnis in the Accordance Front and seculars in the Iraqi National List of former prime minister Iyad Allawi.

The walkout on the UIA deprives the all-Shi'ite alliance of 32 deputies from the Sadrist bloc in the 275-member Parliament. It is targeted against two people, Maliki and his patron, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim (a traditional opponent of the Sadr family in Shi'ite politics and leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council - SIIC).

Muqtada, who has been threatening a walkout for some time, claims that the UIA (which is headed by Hakim) has failed to respond to his numerous demands. One of the complaints is that Maliki no longer consults the Sadrists on affairs of state. Another is that Maliki, after his falling out with Muqtada, started arresting members of his Mahdi Army, although Muqtada promised a truce with government authorities and US forces that would last for six months, starting in August.

In effect, Maliki is now cracking down on the same people who have protected his regime since it came to power in May 2006. The walkout is in direct response to a new alliance comprising Maliki, Hakim and two Kurdish leaders, Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Maliki says they are "moderate architects" of a new Iraq. As far as Muqtada is concerned, they are nothing but puppets for the United States, working to transfer control of oil-rich Kirkuk to Kurdistan, in return for Kurdish support for the prime minister.

The UIA, which has already lost the Shi'ite Fadila Party and runs a high risk of being voted out of power if new elections are called for or if Maliki receives a vote of no confidence within the chamber, is frantic. Maliki now only has a razor-thin majority.

Abbas al-Bayati of the UIA said it would try to persuade the Sadrists to return. "They will not go too far away from the alliance; their withdrawal is not decisive." Members of the Sadrist bloc, however, claim the move is final, with no turning back.

Muqtada is very aware - often too aware - of his political weight within the Shi'ite community. Although Hakim and Maliki are powerful among Shi'ite businessmen and the middle class, Muqtada is king among young people and the community's poor. People follow Muqtada because he offers them services such as free hospitalization and protection. When they are wronged, he offers them revenge.

The Mahdi Army, seen as a militia by Iraqi Sunnis and the United States, is extremely popular among young Shi'ites. If these young people, who are frustrated because of unemployment, abandon the UIA, then the coalition of Shi'ite powers is in great trouble, although they refuse to admit it.

Many Shi'ites are already frustrated by the UIA's refusal to call for a timetable for US troop withdrawal. They are equally angered by Maliki's recent crackdown on the Mahdi Army, to please the George W Bush White House. In addition to protection, the Mahdi Army provided them with jobs.

Hakim, who competes with Muqtada for leadership among Shi'ites, is still strongly in favor of creating an autonomous Shi'ite district in southern Iraq. The UIA backs him in this, but Muqtada is curtly opposed to further federalization of Iraq, claiming the country should remain united.

Many Iraqis, who remain Arab nationalists at heart, are opposed to the carving up of Iraq along sectarian lines, despite their Shi'ite nationalism. The UIA is also strongly allied to, and funded by, the mullahs of Iran. Muqtada claims that Hakim is a stooge of Tehran for having lived there in the 1980s and mobilized his militia, the Badr Brigade, to fight against the Iraqi army in the Iran-Iraq War of that decade. Although Muqtada dreams of a theocracy in Iraq, he nevertheless wants it to be independent of the Iranian regime.

This also puts him at odds end with the UIA. The UIA, originally created for the parliamentary elections of 2005, was composed of several Shi'ite parties that were headed by the Da'wa Party of Maliki, the SIIC of Hakim, and al-Fadila, all under the patronage of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

They held 130 of the 275 seats in Parliament. The Sadrists, originally seen as a junior party in the UIA, started playing an increasingly stronger role with their 32 seats, and the ministerial jobs given to them by Maliki. Their influence stemmed from two elements: Muqtada's popularity, and his undeclared alliance with the prime minister.

Maliki gave Muqtada protection from US persecution and Muqtada reciprocated with giving Maliki legitimacy among Shi'ites in the slums of Baghdad. The two men began to disagree in late 2006 on how to deal with the US. Muqtada wanted Maliki to confront the US. But Maliki simply could not say "no" to the US, since he owed it his political existence.

By 2007, Muqtada had become a political embarrassment for Maliki. The US was pressuring him to get rid of him and crack down on the Mahdi Army, if he wanted to stay in office. Arab states were pressuring Maliki to abandon his Shi'ite nationalism in favor of a pan-Iraqi stance. They believed that Muqtada's growing influence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq was due to Maliki's leniency with the Mahdi Army.

The targeting of Sunni neighborhoods, attacks on Sunni mosques and the assassination of Sunni notables were all believed to be the doing of Muqtada. The Sunni street made Muqtada the scapegoat for all the sectarian violence in Iraqi, even if he were not responsible.

Maliki survived the wave of condemnation from the Arab world by holding on to a strong domestic alliance of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds. When that began to snap, things began falling apart on all

Continued 1 2 

Mr Bush, your sheikh is dead (Sep 15, '07)

Petraeus out of step with US top brass (Sep 14, '07)

1. Mr Bush, your sheikh is dead

2. Petraeus out of step with US top brass

3. Russia's new premier has bite 

4. Behind the Anbar myth 

5. That '800-pound gorilla' ...  

6. Deep flaws in Afghan peace drive   

7. Money won't supply your
soup spoon

8. Sri Lanka's Tigers take a big hit

9. US and Europe drain Iran's half-full glass

10. Al-Qaeda sets Lebanon record straight

(Sep 14-16, 2007)


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