Page 1 of 2 At last, some good news from Iraq
By Sami Moubayed
Good news came from Iraq this weekend - the best news for the US, probably,
since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was killed by a US
air strike in June 2006.
The two rival clerics, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, who control the
Iraqi Shi'ite community, have decided to lay down their arms and unite their
efforts to bring stability and security to
Hakim leads the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), which controls
the Badr Brigade. Sadr leads the Mahdi Army, a massive militia that controls
the slums and poorer districts of Baghdad. Hakim is popular among the educated
Shi'ite elite, the middle-class, and affluent business community. He is backed
by both Iran and the United States. Sadr reigns among the young and the poor
and is backed by grassroot Iraqis.
The two men, who control two very powerful militias, have been sniping at each
other since the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. This single
reconciliation development - if carried out as planned - can truly help end the
violence, more so than all the conferences, debates, and proposals laid out
since 2003. If united, the two militias can help eradicate al-Qaeda in Iraq.
All they have been doing for the past 4 years, however, is fight one another
for control of the Shi'ite street.
The news came as a surprise, especially as a war of words and bullets had
escalated between the two camps over the past 10 days. The Sadrists accused
Badr of target assassinations in southern Iraq. Ahmad Masoudi, a Sadrist
parliamentarian, said that hit squads loyal to Hakim were operating against the
Mahdi Army. He said that senior members of SIIC, like Vice President Adel
Abdul-Mehdi and Interior Minister Jawad al-Boulani, intervened with government
authorities in Babil to release Badr militiamen who had carried out attacks
against the Mahdi Army, killing four Sadrists. Last week, two Sadrist clerics
were assassinated in Basra - a crime that Sadr blamed on Hakim.
On the other hand, media outlets under Hakim's control have been accusing Sadr
of instigating inter-Shi'ite violence, blaming Sadr himself for the latest
hostilities in Karbala. It seemed like tension was snowballing between both
parties and would lead to a Shi'ite civil war - a war that Sadr would lose due
to Hakim's alliance with the Iraqi government, the United States, and Iran.
That is probably why Sadr decided to step out of the battle with maximum
face-saving in front of his supporters. Rather than engage in war with Hakim -
and lose - he now boasts of having taken a "wise decision" to prevent the
shedding of Shi'ite blood. Instead of playing the victim, Sadr actually is now
playing the victor. He claimed that his decision to reconcile with Hakim was
done with one purpose: "Strengthening the nation".
But there are other objectives behind the four-and-a-half hour meeting between
the two rival groups that are worth observing.
1) Traditionally, Sadr and Hakim have agreed on nothing. Sadr was,
despite his religious overtones, a strong Arab nationalist who believed in the
traditional rhetoric of a unified Arab nation, dedicated to the eradication of
the state of Israel. Arab nationalism, he believed, comes before Iraqi
nationalism. And in turn, Iraqi nationalism comes before Shi'ite nationalism.
Hakim believes the opposite. His ranking is Shi'ite, Iraqi, Arab.
Hakim wants autonomy for the Shi'ites in southern Iraq, similar to that
obtained by the Kurds. Sadr wants to keep Iraq united. Hakim wants a paramount
role for Iran in Iraqi politics. Sadr wants Iran to keep a distance - although
he aims at creating an Iran-like theocracy in Baghdad. Sadr remained in Iraq
during the difficult years of Saddam Hussein, refusing to be protected by the
Iranians. Hakim fled to Tehran, where along with his brother. Mohammad Baqir,
he founded SIIC (then known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution
in Iraq, SCIRI) and Badr Brigade. They were funded by Tehran while Sadr's Mahdi
Army operated through local donations and fund-raising projects. Sadr boasted
that he was 100% Iraqi while Hakim was a creation of Tehran.
Sadr wants the Americans to immediately leave Iraq. Hakim wants them to stay,
warning that their immediate evacuation would plunge the country into more
chaos. The only thing they seemed to agree on was hatred for al-Qaeda. Given
all the other differences, this single unifying factor always took a backseat
in the relationship. Today, fear of al-Qaeda is increasing. So is fear of Sunni
groups being armed by the US to eradicate al-Qaeda. First, this threatens the
stature of both men. If the Sunni militias succeed, the Shi'ites will get no
credit for wiping out a traditional and dangerous enemy. Second, the very fact
that Sunnis are being armed is alarming and unifying for the Shi'ites. They
don't trust armed militiamen from the Sunni community,fearing that once they
get rid of al-Qaeda (or fail in their campaign to destroy it) the Sunnis would
unleash their arms against the Shi'ites.
Ammar Hakim, the son of Abdul-Aziz, commented: "Seeking help from people in
some areas to bring peace is a right principle. But random arming and giving
authority to groups outside the security forces is another [matter]."
Shortly after the arming process began, sectarian violence re-started.
Abdul-Sattar Risheh, a Sunni tribal chief working with the Americans against
al-Qaeda, was gunned down after meeting President George W Bush. Mouawiyya
Jbara, the head of the Saladin Awakening Council, was also assassinated. Sunni
chiefs cried foul play, accusing either al-Qaeda, or radical Shi'ites. Earlier
last week, on October 4, a roadside bomb killed the mayor of Iskandariya (40km
south of Baghdad), Abbas al-Khafaji, who is a powerful member of SIIC. The
Shi'ites cried foul play and accused al-Qaeda and Sunni tribes - who were being
aimlessly armed by the Americans - for his assassination.
As tension rises between both parties, Sunni statements are spreading more
worry in the Shi'ite community. The Amman-based Harith al-Dari, who is one of
the most influential Sunni chiefs in Iraq and on the "wanted" list of the
Maliki government, appeared on al-Jazeera and came one step short of supporting
al-Qaeda. "We reject the actions of al-Qaeda," he said, "but they are still
part of us. Ninety percent of al-Qaeda are Iraqi. It may be possible to hold a
dialogue with them and God may help them return to reason."
He went on, "from a national, Islamic, and rational point of view, it is not
allowed to fight alongside occupation forces [in reference to the Sunnis being
armed by the United States to combat al-Qaeda]." Self-defense against al-Qaeda
attacks, he noted, was justified. The remarks, coming from the head of the
Muslim Scholars Association, raised eyebrows in Shi'ite Iraq - all the more
reason for Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim to cooperate.
2) If the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) that is headed by Hakim,
collapses, then this spells trouble for the Shi'ites at large. Although Sadr
has suspended his membership in the all-Shi'ite parliamentary group,
withdrawing his 30 deputies, they remain a natural ally for him in a standoff
with the Sunnis. The UIA has already suffered from walk-out of the Fadila
Party. It ejected from power, they cannot guarantee a thundering victory, as
was the case in 2005. If the UIA is out, then both Hakim and Sadr lose as their
successors would be either independent, secular, Sunni, or a combination of all
three, and would deny the religiously driven Shi'ites the chance to control
government as they have done since 2005. The traditional Arab saying stands:
"My brother and I