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    Middle East
     May 2, 2008
The heat is on Muqtada
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The war continues between Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Iraqi army, resulting in nearly 1,000 dead in the Shi'ite slum of Sadr City in Baghdad.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is waging war on his former ally Muqtada, said, "The suffering will not be long in Sadr City. We will save our brothers." Additionally, 20 US soldiers have been killed since April 1. According to a spokesman for the Iraqi government, there have been 925 killed and another 2,605 wounded.

This is a sharp increase in violence, from the 1,082 killed in March, and the very high 721 dead in February. The results have not been satisfying, to say the least, for Maliki. When the onslaught began, Maliki was ill-advised. Somebody told him he


 

would be able to crush the Mahdi Army in a breeze.

Instead the Mahdi Army has not disintegrated, nor has it laid down its arms. It continues to fight - a war of survival - against Maliki and many uniformed Iraqi troops have laid down their arms and decided to stop fighting. In some cases, to the horror of the Americans urging Maliki to continue the war, some have even shifted sides, and taken up arms with Muqtada.

The young cleric insists his aim is to fight the Americans, not fellow Iraqis in the Maliki government, which he helped prop up in 2006. Gunmen had been attacking US troops, prompting Lieutenant Colonel Steve Stover, a spokesman for the US military, to say, "We have every right to defend ourselves. The problem is that they are using houses, rooftops and alleyways [as cover]." He added, "We are not preventing food, water, emergency vehicles from entering or exiting Sadr City."

Residents of the Shi'ite slum claim otherwise, saying that for the past week they have been left with no water or electricity. Lawlessness and chaos prevail, and the authorities recently found more than 100 bodies in two mass graves, one in al-Gab, 80 kilometers north of Baghdad, and another south of the Iraqi capital. Most of the bodies had their hands tied, with gunshots straight to the head - at close range. It is unclear who is behind these assassinations, the Americans, the Sadrist, Iraqi men in uniform, or all of the above.

Maliki realizes the Shi'ite rug has been snatched from beneath his feet. Muqtada is now king among Iraqi Shi'ites. He knew this was coming; the handwriting had been on the wall since 2006, but he never had the courage to confront - let alone fight - Muqtada. The cleric is powerful, becoming increasingly rich (not for personal indulgences but to distribute among his followers) and is using symbols that enflame Shi'ite emotions, which made Maliki snap, "I don't know how these people use the [Shi'ite religious] names we respect like Mahdi and Sadr." He was referring to Muqtada's father, Mohammad Sadiq, a very popular and respected Shi'ite leader who was killed by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1999.

This circus cannot go on for long. Maliki has threatened that the Sadrists, who control 30 seats in the 275-seat parliament, will be disqualified from the October provincial elections unless the Mahdi Army is disbanded. Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister, denied any attempt at rooting out the Sadrists, stressing that Maliki wanted to rid himself of the militias only (meaning the Mahdi Army), saying; "The Sadr movement is an indigenous, major political movement of this country. Attempts at isolating them or excluding them will not serve Iraq's stability and prosperity. It is in our interest to have the Sadr movement as an integral part of the political process."

Maliki, he added, was nevertheless "very serious" about the militias, claiming he will disarm all of them, making no reference however, to "good militias" like the Kurdish Peshmerga, which operates in northern Iraq, or the Badr Brigade which is loyal to Maliki's ally Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).

Salih also asked parliament for US $5 billion in reconstruction for Sadr City, claiming that normal citizens - 2.5 million who are already poor in the Shi'ite slum - must not pay the price for the rule of militias and their war with Iraqi troops.

For his part, Maliki laid down four conditions to end the strife with the Sadrists 1) Disarm the Mahdi Army 2) Stop all interference in affairs of state (something which he had originally tolerated - and encouraged - during the years 2006-2007. 3) Stop taking the law into their own hands in districts like the southern city of Basra and Sadr City, which are controlled by Muqtada. 4) Hand over all wanted fugitives to face the justice of the Iraqi government.

"To refuse these conditions," he said from the well-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad (co-guarded by none other than the Badr militia) "means the continuation of the government's efforts to disarm them by force." He drew parallels between the Mahdi Army and al-Qaeda, claiming that both threatened security and were bringing chaos to Iraq.

He made no mention of the Americans. Nearly 50 tribal and political leaders, representing major parties in the Iraqi arena, went to Sadr City to show solidarity with its residents, calling on Maliki to immediately stop the onslaught. One of the parties represented was the Iraqi Accordance Front, a leading Sunni group that fell out with Maliki last August, for failing to impose far-reaching political reforms aimed at rapprochement with the Sunni community. For his part, Muqtada has refused all of the prime minister's conditions.

Who is behind all of this?
Some claim the Americans asked Maliki to strike, as a condition for keeping him in power, so he can bring some law and order to Iraq before the term of President George W Bush expires in January 2009.

The Americans have wanted to eliminate Muqtada from day one, but were prevented from doing so, first under the mediation of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, then under Maliki's direct intervention. Maliki needed Muqtada to obtain legitimacy in the Shi'ite community when first becoming prime minister in May 2006.

Muqtada legitimized him among young Iraqis and poor Iraqis, while Maliki provided a security umbrella. Nobody would harass the Mahdi Army as long as he was serving as prime minister. In addition to six seats in the Iraqi cabinet, and 30 seats in Parliament (all obtained by virtue of Muqtada's popularity) the Sadrists were allowed to keep their militia - and often use it - to settle old scores with the Ba'athists, or new ones either with al-Qaeda and rising Sunni militias.

Provided these arms were not being used against Maliki - or the Americans - then everybody seemed pleased with Muqtada. Soon, however, Maliki could no longer control the power and ambition of Muqtada. The young cleric learns quickly - too quickly some would say - and started creating a system that made him the uncrowned king of Baghdad.

Learning from the Hezbollah model and inspired by Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, he eliminated any anti-Sunni rhetoric from his speeches and began calling for rapprochement with Sunnis. At a time when Maliki was increasingly unable to deliver anything to disgruntled Sunnis, they found solace in the words of Muqtada.
Despite the bad blood between them in 2004-2007, especially after Muqtada's team accused the Sunnis of blowing up the holy Shi'ite site at Samarra, the Sunnis were willing to work with Muqtada to bring down Maliki. Muqtada had personally and publicly challenged the Sunnis by discriminating against them in government ministries under his control, like the Ministry of Health, Commerce and Education. He turned a blind eye to the death squads roaming the streets of Baghdad - searching for trouble, with Sunni notables. He did nothing to prevent attacks on Sunni mosques, the assassination of Sunni clerics and the razing of Sunni neighborhoods after the attack on Samarra.

All the same, Muqtada seemed less dangerous than Maliki because he was clear about his agenda and his vision. He does not tolerate the Americans in Iraq, just like the Sunnis despise them. He does not want to partition Iraq and give the Shi'ites an autonomous district in the south, which had been called for by Maliki's ally, Hakim. Although he wants a theocracy inspired by the Iranian model, he nevertheless does not want the Iranians to meddle in Iraqi affairs. He wants to maintain Iraq's Arab identity and strengthen its relations with its Arab neighbors.

Maliki feared a double deal; some kind of united front between the Sunnis and Muqtada, and under American urging, cracked down on the Sadrists.

The Iranian angle
Others claim Iran gave a green light to Maliki during the March visit of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, to wipe out the Sadrists. This is a little confusing since confirmed reports from Iran claim that at one point during the past six months, the Iranians began to see an ally in Muqtada. They realize that their former proxy, Hakim, is aged, ailing with cancer and unable to control the Shi'ite community of Iraq for much longer. His successor, Ammar al-Hakim, is no match to the popularity of Muqtada and will be unable to keep either the SIIC or Badr united once Abdul-Aziz parts the scene.

Additionally, the Iranians are afraid that at one point, their other proxy in the Arab world, Hezbollah, will get caught up in a civil war, or another confrontation with Israel that might severely weaken, if not break, its powers. Or if Syria signs a peace deal with Israel (something that is currently a hot issue due to the initiative of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan), then part of the deal would be a break between Damascus and Hezbollah.

With Badr losing its popularity, Hakim marching into obscurity and Hezbollah in critical waters, the only credible alternative is the Mahdi Army. Hakim and Muqtada, however, are not on good terms. They are traditional enemies, fighting from one generation to the next, over control of Iraqi Shi'ites.

Initially, the Iranians avoided angering Hakim by not making any public gestures to Muqtada. Hakim has always been loyal to the mullahs of Tehran and had Badr fight alongside the Iranian army, against their own countrymen, during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988.

Iran started out by sending money to Muqtada, seeing if he was receptive, and pretty soon, political support followed. That, along with 5% of income donated to him by his followers (a common practice with certain Iraqi Shi'ites), and revenue from the Majnoun oilfield near Basra (controlled by Muqtada's men) all started bringing new wealth to the coffers of the Sadrists.

Muqtada, learning from Nasrallah, began sending monthly subsidies to families in need, who in turn pledged full support, and distributing money at will to young Shi'ites, either to join his political movement or the Mahdi Army. It seemed like the logical and prestigious thing to do. Muqtada has legitimacy and family history. He is a cleric and rising in religious prominence, as a result of him returning to the books to reach the title of grand ayatollah.

He is nationalistic and wants to see an end to the Americans in Iraq. And although he may have become close to the Iranians, he is by no means a puppet of Iran. If the Iranians did in fact give Maliki the green light to crush him, this would have been either 1) to reach some kind of back-channel deal with the Americans. 2) They realized that cooperation with him was limited and he would never allow himself to become another Hakim.

Rather than have him as a thorn in their side, the Iranians decided to rid themselves of him. This would first empower their original proxies, Hakim and Maliki. Second, it would send off a powerful message to the Americans, or at least, whomever succeeds Bush.

This might explain why, on April 30, the Sadrists came out with a strong-worded statement against Tehran, accusing the Iranians of "dividing influence" with the Americans on Iraq. This is proven, the Sadrists added, by the lack of objections from Iran to what is happening in Sadr City or to the Iraqi-US talks regarding a long-term political and military agreement. Iran is "behind the nightmares in Iraq".

Either way, whether Muqtada is under attack as a result of an American plan, or an Iranian one, he has a major fight on his hands.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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