Intensifying conflict in Sadr City underscores US and Iraqi government’s fear of Muqtada al-Sadr

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Khalil Fadl

Rabi' al-Thani 25, 1429 2008-05-01

Main Stories

by Khalil Fadl (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 3, Rabi' al-Thani, 1429)

After months of wishing away young anti-American Shi’a alim Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to marginalize the Sadrist Current (al-Tayyar al-Sadri) by military means. But the Iraqi military offensive against the Sadrists, which was supposed to demonstrate the power of the central government, has actually laid bare its weaknesses and highlighted the political weight of Sadr’s movement. Operation Cavalry Charge (Sawlat al-Fursan), which began on March 25 in Basra and set off clashes with Mahdi Army fighters in several cities throughout southern Iraq and in the Baghdad itself, has also underlined the growing influence of Iran in post-Saddam Iraq.

As this issue of Crescent went to press, intermittent clashes were occurring daily in Sadr City, the sprawling slum of about 2.5 million people that is the main stronghold of Sadr’s followers in northeast Baghdad. Clashes continued despite a truce mediated by Iran on March 30, which achieved only a temporary respite. American and Iraqi forces have cordoned off Sadr City, closing most of the roads leading in and out of the area. The joint US-Iraqi military push centered on the southern parts of Sadr City in an effort to drive Mahdi Army fighters away from where they could lob rockets and mortar rounds into the Green Zone. To this end, a concrete wall to seal off these areas has been constructed.

Despite the Iraqi prime minister’s much-hyped goal of “restoring law and order”, this crackdown has all the hallmarks of a military campaign designed to eliminate a political rival. It occurs as part of a long-running competition between Sadr and his main rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Sayyid Abd al-’Aziz al-Hakim, for domination of Iraq’s Shi’a political landscape and the Shi’a heartland in the southern provinces. Fractiousness and fluidity have always characterized intra-Shi’a rivalries in Iraq. It was the backing of Sadr’s 30-strong parliamentary bloc that tipped the scale in Maliki’s favor in the race for the position of prime minister against ISCI’s candidate, vice-president Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Since then Maliki and the Islamic Da’awah party have ironed out their longstanding differences with Hakim’s SIIC and they are now using the Iraqi government’s military machine to undermine the Sadrists.

By weakening the Sadrists, the Maliki-Hakim alliance hopes to avert a setback at the ballot--box in October, when voters are scheduled to go to the polls to elect provincial councils. The Sadrists are expected to make significant gains in the upcoming local elections, which would undermine the control of the Maliki-Hakim alliance over most provincial councils in south-central and central Iraq. The early election was announced after strong pressure from a host of Shi’a and Sunni Islamic groups, as well as secularists. Results will reflect the relative electoral weight of various groups who intend to field candidates in the general elections due next year. For the ISCI, winning the local election would allow it to proceed toward its goal of establishing an autonomous region in the nine provinces of south-central and southern Iraq. Such a federalist scheme is anathema to the Sadrists, who regard the notion of autonomous, self-governing regions as a step towards the breakup of Iraq.

On April 13 the Iraqi government endorsed and referred to parliament a draft bill that bans political parties with militias from taking part in provincial elections set for October. Although Sadr’s Mahdi Army was not specifically named, which would certainly stir a heated debate in parliament over how to define the term “militia,” there is no doubt that it will be the primary target of the new law whenever it is passed. There is no reason to believe that the legislation will be used to target other Iraqi parties maintaining militias or armed wings, including Maliki’s Da’awah party and the Badr Organization of Hakim’s ISCI. These militias have succeeded in infiltrating the Iraqi army, police and other branches of the security forces more than the Mahdi Army has ever managed to do.

In attempting to exclude the Sadrists from the political process, Maliki risks an all-out confrontation with Sadr’s movement. Sadr has so far avoided issuing an open call to arms to his followers. In fact, he has never officially abandoned the ceasefire he renewed for another six months in February. Isolating Sadr politically could prompt him to abandon the ceasefire altogether, which would eventually lead to a spiral of violence that would erode many of the much-flaunted gains of the US “troop surge”. The ceasefire has been credited by US military commanders with a significant drop of attacks on their troops, as well as in anti-Sunni sectarian bloodletting.

In as much as Maliki’s move to assert himself militarily against the Sadrists has deepened existing factional divisions within the Shi’a community, it has also created new rifts. At various instances during the clashes, both Iraqi government troops and the Mahdi Army drew on tribal support in their struggle against each other. For instance, on March 28 tribal fighters from the al-Laheibat tribes attacked and burned down the headquarters of Tayyar al-Sadri in Ghammas town, some 70 kilometers (about 45 miles) to the west of Diwaniyyah, in Qadisiyyah province. The attack was carried out to avenge the killing of Sa’ad al-Shiblawi, the police chief in the area. While the use of the tribal system for political purposes is a long-established strategy in Iraq (Saddam Hussein used it in the aftermath of the uprising in 1991 and the Americans are currently using it in central and western Iraq against al-Qa’ida), it is a dangerous gambit that is fraught with risks. For one thing, it promotes divisive politics, which undermine the unity of the state, as it thrusts tribal vendettas onto the political scene. It also encourages tribes to set up and maintain their own tribal militias, which does not augur well for the future of stability in Iraq because of the tribes’ propensity to feud among themselves. When it comes to dealing with central government, tribes are not reliable political partners, as they tend to shift their loyalties to the winner, or even the highest bidder. They have traditionally been at best suspicious of, at worst hostile to, central governmental authority, which they associate with oppression.

In the heat of Maliki’s battle to settle scores with the Sadrists, the weaknesses of the Iraqi government forces, which failed to make any battlefield gains on their own, became apparent. The gains Iraqi troops made came only after the US committed troops, artillery and air power to the combat areas. British forces stationed at Basra airport also provided military support. The performance of Iraqi troops during the fighting showed serious deficiencies in their preparedness and battlefield efficiency. There were numerous cases of desertions, defections and disorderly retreats from the battlefield. Iraqi forces were unable to hold their own without US military support, a fact which raises serious questions about the probable performance of these forces after the withdrawal of US troops.

On April 13 the Iraqi government announced that about 1,300 soldiers and police officers had been dismissed from their posts for disobeying orders to fight the Mahdi Army during the offensive. A large number of police officers were arrested on charges of membership in, or harboring sympathies with, militias. Interior ministry spokesman Abd al-Karim Khalaf said that these men would be court-marshalled for having deserted for political, religious and ethnic considerations, and “showing solidarity with the outlaws.” Most of these desertions took place inBasra, where about 920 men in uniform were dismissed. Many of the remaining fired troops were from Kut, the capital of Wasit province, where intense fighting raged for days after the launch of the Basra operation. The scale of the purge became apparent on April 16, when Iraqi officials confirmed that the two most senior security officials in Basra, the army chief of operations Lieutenant General Mohan Hafiz al-Fureiji and police commander Major General Abd al-Jalil Khalaf al-Muhammadawi, had been transferred to high-ranking positions in the defense ministry in Baghdad. The “transfer” is in fact a punitive demotion, as most of the 11,000-strong Basra police force refused to fight the Mahdi Army. However, despite the purge and the attendant threat of dismissal and a court marshal, some predominantly Shi’a army units continued to show reluctance to fight the Mahdi Army. On April 18, soldiers belonging to an Iraqi army company taking positions in the al-Nassir police station in Sadr City abandoned their posts when they were attacked by militiamen. This was the second company of government troops to have deserted in Sadr City within the same week.

It is no accident that the ceasefire agreement which brought a short-lived pause to the recent fighting in Basra was negotiated in Iran. Iraqi MPs Ali al-Adib of the Da’awah party and Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Organization, travelled to Qum (in Iran) to persuade Brigadier General Qassem Sulaymani, the commander of the Quds Brigade of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to lean on Sadr, who is currently studying in Qum, to stand down the Mahdi Army. The Iranian mediation resulted in a nine-point statement issued on March 30 by Sadr in which he demanded an end to “all armed manifestations in Basra and all provinces.” The fact that the Mahdi Army fighters immediately responded to Sadr’s orders underscored his authority over the militia. It also pointed to the progress he has achieved, since he first declared the ceasefire last August, in reining in Mahdi Army splinter groups that had morphed into an autonomous constellation of freelance armed groups and criminal enterprises.

Some analysts have billed the anti-Sadrist crackdown as a war by proxy between Iran and the US. In fact, much of the congressional testimony given last month by the two most senior American officials in Iraq, US ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and commander of US forces General David H. Petraeus, was focused on Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. They said that “special groups” trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were taking part in the fighting alongside the Mahdi Army. But the most problematic aspect of the proxy war explanation is that it does not take into consideration the fact that Islamic Iran maintains good relations with all the Shi’a parties, its well-known disagreements with them notwithstanding. By building bridges with the various components of the Iraqi Shi’a political spectrum, Iran’s objectives are two-pronged: to preclude the possibility of the emergence of a hostile regime inIraq, and to make the US occupation of Iraq an increasingly costly and painful enterprise.

Sadr’s reaction to the crackdown has been confusing, sending mixed messages that suggest both open defiance and reconciliatory overtures. On April 19 he issued a statement in which he described the Maliki government as “ungrateful” and threatened that “if it does not desist and curb its defiance and that of the militias that have infiltrated it, we will then to declare it an open war until liberation.” He also reiterated his demand for a US troop-withdrawal. “I hope that … the Iraqi government,” the statement read, “will ask the occupier to set a timetable for its withdrawal as soon as possible.” However, on April 25 Sadr issued another statement in which he called on his followers to stop the bloodshed, unite with all Iraqis, and focus their firepower on driving out the occupation forces. While calling on his followers “to wage open war against the Americans” he warned them against “raising a hand against another Iraqi citizen.” This is typical Sadr: his political style and rhetoric combine elements of militia strength, populism and social outreach. By alternating his messages between fire and brimstone, on the one hand, and expressions of care and compassion towards all Iraqis, on the other, Sadr’s rhetoric reflects a carefully calibrated strategy that is intended to project power in a political landscape that respects might more than shared values, to enhance his credentials as a nationalist leader, and to tap the deep well of anti-occupation feeling among Iraqis.

In the shifting quicksand of Iraqi politics, the anti-Sadrist crackdown has set off the growth of another nucleus of power at the center. The Kurds, who at several points in time during Maliki’s term in office had wanted to get rid of him, have rallied to Sadr’s side. Support has also come from the Sunni Arab bloc, the Accordance Front (Jabhat al-Tawafuq), which walked out of his government last year. The Tawafuq is currently in the process of putting together a list of candidates to fill its share of ministerial posts. Tawafuq leaders view the anti-Sadrist crackdown, albeit poorly planned and fraught with risks, as an indication that the Maliki government has risen above sectarian considerations. “Our conditions were very clear, and the government achieved some of them,” said Adnan al-Dulaymi, head of the Accordance. Foremost among the achievements cited by Dulaymi were “chasing down and disbanding the militias and curbing the outlaws.” But the emerging ruling coalition is much like old soup in a new bowl. It only brings together some major elements which had defected from the original coalition that made up Maliki’s cabinet. It is hard to see how such a coalition, excluding groups with broad bases of grassroots support, can secure the national reconciliation that has eluded Iraqis since the fall of Saddam.

The showdown with the Sadrists has pushed the Iraqi Shi’as to the brink of all-out civil war. It has also shown that eliminating the Sadrists by force is no easy undertaking. Nor have the attempts to neutralize Sadr politically been a straightforward matter. The Sadrist Current is a home-grown movement with a genuine broad base of popular support in the Iraqi Shi’a community. So far, all efforts to reach an accommodation with the Sadrist Current have failed. But without such accommodation, the Sadrist Current will continue to be a thorn in the side of whoever assumes power in Baghdad.

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