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Iraq: Shi'ite Militia Continues To Pose Dilemma

  • Sumedha Senanayake --> The Imam Al-Mahdi Army remains a force in Iraq (file photo) (RFE/RL) NEW YORK, October 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The last few weeks have seen intense activity within the Iraqi Interior Ministry to clear its ranks of rogue elements, criminals, and officers linked with death squads, but the ministry's inability to rein in the militias, particularly that led by radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, continues to be the most contentious issue.

In his boldest moves so far to clean up his Ministry, Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani announced on October 13 the dismissal of 3,000 ministry personnel on charges of corruption and human rights violations. Then on October 18, al-Bulani dismissed three top police commanders, whom Sunni Arabs accused of having links to Shi'ite death squads and reassigning them to administrative duty.

But al-Bulani still faces difficult challenges, most notably the issue of reining in the militias, particularly al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, which has been blamed for carrying out many of the sectarian attacks. While al-Sadr has denied the allegations, he has repeatedly, and more often, called on his followers to stop carrying out these attacks and vowed to go after any of his militiamen who have been accused of taking part in death squads under the banner of the Al-Mahdi Army.

Empty Promises?

The calls to his followers seem somewhat of an empty promise, since al-Sadr has made similar statements in the past. After the February bombing of the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, al-Sadr joined Shi'ite leaders in calling for an end to revenge killings. While the killings subsided somewhat, they still persisted.

Moreover, U.S. military officials have said they have evidence that rogue elements within the Al-Mahdi Army are carrying out some of the sectarian attacks, indicating that al-Sadr may be losing control of some of his militiamen.

A report by the National Security Ministry indicated that hundreds of criminal gang members have joined the militia and some have been elevated to leading positions, the United Arab Emirates-based "Gulf News" reported on October 17. Meanwhile, "The New York Times" reported on September 28 that since al-Sadr has taken a more active role in politics, some of his followers have become disillusioned and splintered off into criminal gangs and freelance death squads.

It is difficult to determine whether these are splinter groups beyond al-Sadr's control, or whether they are militia members ordered to carry out attacks that al-Sadr can then attribute to rogue elements. Lydia Khalil, an independent analyst at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program, asserts in a report posted on the Global Terrorism Analysis website on October 10 that some members of the group might be doing the dirty work for the Al-Mahdi Army, but are then denied public affiliation with the group, so as to shield al-Sadr and his militia from any responsibility.

Al-Maliki's Dilemma

The issue of the militias, particularly the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, presents a huge dilemma for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is being pressured from all sides to quell the sectarian violence. The Americans have urged him to rein in al-Sadr's militia, and privately, some U.S. officials expressed frustration at al-Maliki's inaction against them.

Al-Maliki (left) may be stuck with al-Sadr (right) (epa file photo)

This notion was underscored when U.S. forces arrested Sheikh Mazin al-Sa'idi, a high-ranking al-Sadr aide who was suspected of leading a cell that carried out sectarian attacks, on October 17 in Baghdad. He was later quickly released at al-Maliki's behest, suggesting that he does not have the political will to control al-Sadr.

Furthermore, the U.S. frustration and impatience came to the fore when the international media reported on October 16 that al-Maliki asked President George W. Bush in a telephone conversation if rumors were true that the United States was planning to replace him if the security situation in Iraq did not improve. Although Bush assured al-Maliki that he had the full support of the United States, the notion that al-Maliki had even asked underscored the severity of the situation and the impatience of the U.S. administration.

Conversely, if al-Maliki acquiesces to the United States and allows them to crush the al-Sadr's militia, he may be perceived as a U.S. puppet and a weak leader. Thus, al-Maliki finds himself in a position similar to that of his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari -- he cannot disband the Al-Mahdi Army outright because he needs al-Sadr's political support.

The cleric's movement is a key partner in al-Maliki's coalition, and with 30 seats in parliament and four cabinet posts, al-Sadr wields considerable influence. It would be almost unthinkable for al-Maliki to call for a major crackdown on al-Sadr's militia and risk a bloody conflict and put his political coalition in jeopardy.

A major confrontation between al-Sadr's forces and the Iraqi Army could be disastrous for a nation already having to contend with an ongoing insurgency and sectarian strife. Therefore, al-Maliki must continue to walk a fine line and carefully try to rein in al-Sadr's militia without coming down too hard on it and risking a violent showdown.
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