Competition for power among Shi’a groups creates new problems in Iraq

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Dhu al-Qa'dah 20, 1428 2007-12-01

Occupied Arab World

by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 10, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1428)

A country that has been looking down the precipice of sectarian and ethnic strife for the past few years can certainly do without more violent intra-communal rivalry. Yet it was exactly such a dangerous scenario that seemed to be unfolding when 3,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen, supported by military tanks, aircraft and hundreds of US and Polish troops, on November 17 launched Operation Lion's Leap in the Iraqi city of Diwaniyyah, the capital of the south-central province of Qadisiyyah. The assault was supposed to flush out armed militiamen loyal to Shi’a alim Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr from the city, which has been the ground of a turf-war between Sadr's faction and its Shi’a archrival, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) led by Sayyid Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim.

Dozens of pro-Sadr activists, including four local leaders, were arrested during the heavy three-day crackdown, and the city's population of more than a million was placed under curfew. Major General Ali Akmoush, Diwaniyyah police chief, admitted that around 70 policemen, including some officers, were also dismissed “for supporting armed gangs,” as he put it. A US military statement quoted Major General Othman Ali Farhud, commander of the 8th Iraqi Army Division, as saying: “The northeast quarters of Diwaniyyah, where the operation was conducted, were under the control of criminal and militant groups.” Yet MPs from Sadr's parliamentary bloc called on the government of Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to intervene to stop the arrests, accusing the authorities of violations of human rights. Falah Hassan Shanshal, an influential Sadrist member of parliament, charged that “local authorities called in the help of the American occupier and of the government as a pretext to take over that part of the city which is not under their control.”

For nearly two years, Diwaniyyah, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, has been engulfed in an increasingly bloody confrontation pitting Sadr's militia, the Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army), against the local government and security forces, which are largely dominated by the SIIC and its armed wing, the Badr Organisation. On August 11 Khalil Jalil Hamzah, the governor of Qadisiyyah, and Khalid Hassan, the provincial police commander, both of whom maintained close links with the SIIC, were assassinated by a roadside bomb. This was followed on August 20 by another roadside bomb that killed Muhammad Ali al-Hassani, the governor of the neighbouring province of Muthanna, who was also affiliated with the SIIC. Both bombs were of the type that uses explosively formed armour-piercing projectiles that hurl a molten, fist-sized copper slug capable of penetrating armoured vehicles. American and British troops in Iraq have accused Iran of supplying such munitions to elements within the Mahdi Army and other Shi’a militias. The fact that Iranian backing is apparently being channelled to various Iraqi Shi’a factions, some of which are at loggerheads with each other, has raised some concerns in Iraq and the West over the Islamic Republic's increasing influence in Iraq. Moreover, for months on end before the killings, the Iraqi army, local police and American forces were engaged in intense pitched battles against the Mahdi Army and other Shi’a armed fighters in Diwaniyyah; thus many suspected that the assassinations were the work of Mahdi Army militiamen. The Sadrists, for their part, have repeatedly and strenuously denied any role in either assassination.

The recent flare-up in fighting in Diwaniyyah underscores the difficulties of resolving intractable disagreements between the Sadrists and the SIIC. It comes after a meeting on October 6 between Sadr and Hakim during which the two leaders signed an agreement pledging to work together to prevent their supporters from attacking each other. The three-point pact included “the necessity of protecting and respecting Iraqi blood regardless of the situation or sect,” motivating the institutions loyal to both sides “to maintain friendly feelings and avoid hatred,” and setting up provincial security coordination committees aimed at keeping order.

The recent fighting in Diwaniyyah shows that this agreement has done little to diffuse tensions and eliminate mutual distrust, suspicion and differences between the two sides. In fact, differences over how to handle key challenges facing the Shi’a community, as it consolidates its political gains and carves a new place for itself in the country's future, widen the rift between the two groups. Formerly known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the SIIC has demonstrated more willingness to work with the US-led coalition as it tries to fashion a post-Saddam political order, despite its close ties to Iran. The UShas reciprocated by backing the SIIC in its rivalry with Sadr's militia. Although Sadr has also joined the post-Saddam political process, he did so reluctantly and only after two failed anti-coalition armed uprisings by his supporters in 2004. He has demonstrated more hostility towards US policies in Iraq and has been at the forefront of calls for a timetable for the withdrawal of the coalition troops from Iraq.

The SIIC has also advocated a “soft” partition of Iraq by the creation of a semi-autonomous region comprised of the nine predominantly Shi’a provinces of southern and southern-central Iraq. The Sadrists, as well as other smaller Shi’a groups, are opposed to the principle of federalism, which is enshrined in the country's post-Saddam constitution, and advocate a strong central government. For instance, on October 14 Sadr's office in Najaf issued a statement which stressed that the group's aversion to federalism “is firm and has not been changed.” This came a day after Ammar al-Hakim, son and heir apparent of Abd al-Aziz, reiterated in an Eid al-Fitr khutba his call for Iraq to be divided into semi-autonomous regions. “I call on this holy day for the people of my country to form regions, starting with the region south of Baghdad,” Ammar told worshippers at the SIIC headquarters inBaghdad.

The divergent policies of both groups are complicated by the fact that they are led by scions of illustrious scholarly families that have, despite being intertwined by marriage, vied for the leadership of the Shi’a community. Abd al-Aziz is the sole survivor of eight sons of Ayatullah al-Udhma Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim, Najaf's pre-eminent Shi’a faqih in the nineteen-sixties. The Ba'athist regime executed or assassinated six of his brothers; a suicide bomber killed the seventh, Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was Abd al-Aziz's predecessor as leader of SCIRI, at the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf in August 2003. Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of Ayatullah al-Udhma Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was murdered with two of his sons by Saddam's assassins in 1999. In April 1980 the Ba'athist regime arrested Muqtada's father-in-law, Ayatullah al-Udhma Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and the Ayatullah's sister Amina, better known by her nickname Bint al-Huda, and executed them. During the nineteen-nineties, when it became clear that Muhammad Sadiq was gathering a growing, tight-knit following around his activist message, friction arose between him and other traditional, largely apolitical, jurists in Najaf, including Ayatullah al-Udhma Sayyid Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, an uncle of Abd al-Aziz. At the time, SCIRI took a leading role in an anti-Sadr campaign that vilified the late Ayatullah al-Udhma as a “government-appointed faqih.”

The two groups also derive their grassroots support from different parts of the Shi’a community. Sadr, who like his father peppers his speeches with the colloquial dialect of the Iraqi poor, has turned the most scorned, ill-treated and neglected segment of the Iraqi Shi’a community into a daunting political and military power. His supporters are concentrated among the Shi’a urban underclass, most of whom suffer from the dislocations of having emigrated from rural areas in the south. On the other hand, the SIIC derives the bulk of its support from the Shi’a merchant-elite and middle classes, as well as former Iraqi exiles who have returned to the country since the fall of Saddam.

The scars of intense intra-Shi’a rivalry are not confined to Diwaniyyah. Other parts of southern Iraq also have similar turf-wars. Gun-battles raged in Karbala in August during celebrations marking the birthday of the twelfth imam of Ithna-Ash'ari Shi'ism. The fighting, which cost the lives of more than 50 people and left parts of the city smouldering, erupted because the Mahdi Army’s resentment boiled over at the role of the Badr Organisation in policing the event and the shrines of Imam Husain and his brother al-Abbas. The immediate cause occurred when Ammar's armed bodyguards were waved through a security barrier around Imam Husain's shrine. The fighting in Karbala set off a series of attacks against SIIC offices in Baghdad. Concerned about the negative publicity generated by the involvement of his supporters in deadly gun-battles during one of the most important Shi’a festivals, Muqtada ordered Mahdi Army fighters to suspend all activities temporarily. “We declare the freezing of the Mahdi Army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months,” said a statement issued by Sadr.

In Basra, several factions have been vying for control of the province's rich oil-reserves. With its vast oil wealth (the province possesses the largest explored oil reserves in the country) and seaport, which is the main gateway for the export of Iraq's oil, theprovince of Basra is a grand prize for any party that manages to wrest control of its local government. The internal struggle over power and resources intensified when the British announced plans to withdraw their troops from Basra city, Iraq's second largest city, with an estimated population of 2.6 million. In early September, they evacuated their positions and bases inside Basra and collected their forces at a single base near the airport in anticipation of their impending departure. Shi’a resistance groups in southern Iraq escalated their attacks on the British forces and the Sadrists have publicly claimed credit for forcing the British out ofBasra's city limits.

The potentially incendiary power struggle in Basra highlights the vexing complexities and fluidity of intra-Shi’a antagonisms and the shifting, if not sometimes even contradictory, mish-mash of alliances among a host of rival groups claiming legitimacy on Shi’a religious grounds. Some of these groups, such as the Tharallah (“Allah's revenge”), Harakat Sayyid al-Shuhada' al-Islamiyyah (“the Islamic Master of Martyrs' Movement”) and the Harakat 15 Sha'aban al-Islamiyyah (“the Islamic Movement of 15 Sha'aban”), are obscure movements and sometimes behave more like criminal enterprises than as political forces. In fact, very little is known about their history, leadership, membership, political programmes or organisational structure. In Basra, Muqtada al-Sad's followers have at times joined forces with the SIIC and other groups to organise a series of popular protests in an attempt to topple the provincial governor, Muhammad Musabbih al-Wa'ili, who belongs to another Shi’a group, the Fadhila (Virtue) Party. Wa'ili has so far clung tenaciously to power, managing to stay on despite a vote of no-confidence in the Basra provincial council and a decision by prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to dismiss him in July. All indications are that the embattled Wa'ili will not be easily dislodged from his seat because of the support he enjoys from the estimated 18,000 fighters loyal to his staunchly anti-Iranian party. The spiritual leader of Fadhila is Ayatullah Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya'aqubi, another contender staking a claim to the legacy of the late Ayatullah al-Udhma Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. In this sense, the Fadhila Party is considered a Sadrist group that rejects Muqtada's leadership. It has forged alliances with other parties (mainly secular ones) with seats on the Basra provincial council to ward off pressure from its political adversaries.

Fadhila has attempted to translate its political weight in Basra into control over the province's oil resources. It has planted its partisans in key positions in the Southern Oil Company, the oil facilities protection force and the oil export terminals. Fadhila and rival Shi’a groups in Basra have also been involved in a scramble to infiltrate the province's security forces and to ensure that their appointees take over various local government offices and agencies. The Sadrists have managed to dominate the local police force and the port authority. They have also joined forces with the local Hizbullah Party to secure a strong presence in the customs police force. For its part, the SIIC maintains a firm grip on the provincial intelligence directorate and the well-equipped commando units that formally come under the auspices of the interior ministry in Baghdad.

The unrest caused by intra-Shi’a tensions bode ill for the future of local government in oil-rich southern Iraq. All of the groups involved have, to various degrees, been involved in efforts to consolidate their positions by dispensing income, local government jobs and patronage, in addition to terrorising opponents and the public at large by threats, assassinations, physical intimidation and abductions. The local administrations they preside over are run poorly. Inefficiency is endemic, corruption is rampant, and a system of sleaze, whereby most tenders and contracts are awarded to relatives and supporters, is prevalent. This has led to significant erosion in public support for them and confidence in them. As divisions between them continue to widen, the last thing that southern Iraq needs is to add fratricidal war and killing to its woes.

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