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Iraq Report: May 10, 2007

Al-Sadr Prepares For The Post-Coalition Era

By Sumedha Senanayake
May 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- During the nearly three months since the Baghdad security plan was launched, radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, have taken a relatively low profile. Leaders in the Al-Sadr's political movement stressed that their fighters will cooperate with the security plan and not engage U.S. and Iraqi troops, even when confronted.

While the movement has essentially kept its promise, it has been relatively active in pursuing alliances with other political entities, which may be an indication of the shifting political landscape.

According to a May 8 report in "Al-Hayat," al-Sadr announced that his organization has initiated a new political project called "reform and reconciliation." The aim of the project is to establish a broad coalition of political parties, regardless of sectarian affiliation, in order to move toward national reconciliation.

Reaching Across Sectarian Lines

This would not be the first time al-Sadr has reached out to other political parties to create alliances. The Saudi daily "Al-Watan" reported on April 22 that former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi met with al-Sadr and his representatives in the holy city of Al-Najaf, in the hopes of having al-Sadr's movement join Allawi's developing political coalition, the Iraq National Front.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have long suspected that as al-Sadr's popularity grew and the ranks of his organization swelled, he might at some point have lost control of some of his followers

More significantly, al-Sadr has sent envoys to Sunni tribal leaders and politicians in an effort to create stronger ties. According to the "Al-Hayat" report, the reasoning behind his aggressive courting of Sunni leaders is to shed his organization's sectarian image and reputation. The paper states that al-Sadr representatives have been in contact with Sunni figures "outside of Iraq" in order for the movement "to regain its image as a 'resistance organization' rather than a sectarian one."

Such a rebranding moves the group more in line with nationalist overtones of the Sunni agenda. Al-Sadr's group has been the scourge of the Sunni Arabs, being blamed for the majority of the sectarian attacks against the Sunni population, and shedding this image would cast it in a different light the eyes of the Sunnis and among Iraq's Sunni neighbors, many of whom view the minority Sunnis as being victimized by the majority Shi'a.

A More Centralized Movement

Furthermore, the organization has initiated wide-ranging internal reforms to purge rogue elements that have been operating beyond the reach of its central authority and that have been involved in sectarian attacks.

"The process aims to isolate the harmful elements -- leaders and individuals who sought to exploit their position inside the [movement]," said Sheikh Abu-Ja'far al-Ibadi, a leader in the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

Certainly, U.S. and Iraqi officials have long suspected that as al-Sadr's popularity grew and the ranks of his organization swelled, he might at some point have lost control of some of his followers. In fact, some of those followers may have associated themselves with al-Sadr in name only, for the sake of prestige and may have undertaken actions without consent or knowledge of the central leadership.

Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating in Baghdad in June 2006 (epa)

These changes coincide with the al-Sadr's movement's increasingly shaky relationship with the dominant Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), of which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Al-Dawah Party is a part. In mid-April, the six cabinet ministers from al-Sadr's group resigned to protest al-Maliki's unwillingness to establish a timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Prior to that, on January 21, al-Sadr's movement ended a nearly two-month boycott of the Iraqi parliament to protest al-Maliki's meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Amman, Jordan.

Moreover, al-Sadr has had a testy relationship with the UIA's other major figure, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Al-Hakim and his organization are the dominant force behind the UIA, with the largest share of seats in the alliance -- 36 -- and control of a powerful militia, the Badr Organization. There have been numerous reports of a power struggle between SCIRI and al-Sadr's group to control several Shi'ite population centers in southern Iraq. Armed clashes have resulted between the Badr Organization and the Imam Al-Mahdi Army in Baghdad, Al-Diwaniyah, and Al-Najaf.

"These clashes are a result of the contrast between the local agenda of [the al-Sadr movement], and SCIRI's agenda, which is supported by foreign parties," Ahmad al-Sharifi, a leader in al-Sadr's movement, told "Al-Zaman" on May 6. "The UIA has become an alliance rife with incompatibilities. Every party in it is waiting for an opportunity to destroy the others."

It is unclear whether al-Sharifi was referring to rumors that Badr fighters have cooperated with the U.S.-led coalition against the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, most recently in Al-Sadr City on May 6. Or he might have been referring to Iran, which has historic links to SCIRI -- al-Hakim lived in exile in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era and the Badr Organization was trained by Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

Looking Forward

Mounting tensions with SCIRI have made al-Sadr rethink his relationship to UIA and his place in the alliance. His internal reorganization plan and his ever-increasing distance from the UIA underscores a new forward-thinking strategy -- preparing for the political realities that would ensue after a U.S. withdrawal. With Washington debating setting a withdrawal date for U.S. forces, the idea of a U.S pullout is becoming more of a reality. Therefore, al-Sadr's purging, reorganization, and caucusing with Sunni groups is likely designed to place him in the strongest possible position if and when that happens.

Moreover, by distancing himself from the ruling Shi'ite coalition, he absolves himself of any failures associated with the current government, including the absence of an oil-revenue law, the lack of progress on constitutional amendments, and the inability to pass legislation to allow Ba'athists to resume their positions. Most importantly, if the current government is not able to deliver on security with the Baghdad security plan, it may create the opening for a figure like al-Sadr to step in. In fact, with al-Maliki's position seeming increasingly fragile, it would seem strategically advantageous for al-Sadr to keep his distance.

Sunni Ultimatum Rocks Al-Maliki's Position

By Sumedha Senanayake

Prime Minister al-Maliki (right) with Vice President al-Hashimi (file photo)

May 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Last week U.S. lawmakers expressed anger at the Iraqi government's plan to take a two-month summer recess. The summer recess, starting in July, would most probably occur before the government is able to take crucial steps to ease sectarian tensions.

The passage of a hydrocarbon law outlining the equitable distribution of Iraq's oil revenues and amendments to the Iraqi constitution to mollify Sunni fears of exclusion are considered by the U.S. administration two of the most important "benchmarks" of progress for the Iraqi government.

During a May 7 interview with CNN, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, gave Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki a stark ultimatum. He said if al-Maliki's government does not implement key amendments to the Iraqi Constitution by May 15, he will resign and call on the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament with 44 seats, to withdraw from parliament.

'The Mistake Of My Life'

"If the constitution is not subject to major changes, definitely, I will tell my constituency frankly that I made the mistake of my life when I put my endorsement to that national accord," al-Hashimi warned.

The failure to push through the petroleum legislation would be a huge embarrassment to the al-Maliki government.

Al-Hashimi complained that the government is excluding Sunni Arabs from the decision-making process. Specifically, he demanded constitutional guarantees that would prevent Iraq splitting into Kurdish, Shi'ite, and Sunni federal states, a possibility that he believes would leave Sunni Arabs at a great disadvantage. The majority of Iraq's oil wealth is in the Kurdish north and the Shi'ite south, leaving the Sunni Arabs with the resource-poor heartland.

The issue of constitutional amendments is crucial to Sunnis within the government. Sunni Arabs were reluctant to join the post-Saddam Hussein political process, and many were finally convinced to vote in the December 2005 elections by promises of future changes to the constitution. However, almost 18 months after those elections, the constitution has not been revisited, creating the impression among Sunnis that they had been duped.

The End Of Reconciliation?

While the withdrawal of the Iraqi Accordance Front would not lead to the collapse of al-Maliki's government, it would be seen as a major blow to the national-reconciliation process. If moderate Sunnis like al-Hashimi who gave the political process a chance decided to withdraw their support, extremist Sunni factions who were considering putting down their weapons and entering the political process would be unlikely to do so.

In fact, those extremist elements would likely harden their resolve if they conclude there is no realistic alternative to armed resistance.

The other key issue looming for al-Maliki is the adoption of a hydrocarbon law outlining the equitable distribution of Iraq's oil revenues. The U.S. government has named this legislation as one of the most significant benchmarks of progress by the Iraqi government.

Oil Law Hits A Snag

In February, the cabinet approved a draft law and after much protracted negotiations; the bill seemed ready to be sent to the Iraqi Parliament for ratification. However, even as the parliament takes up the draft law for debate, the Kurds have expressed grave misgivings about the bill. At the heart of the opposition are the annexes to the draft law by the central government that relate to the role of the Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC) and its control over most of Iraq's proven reserves.

Kurdish Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami has said that under the draft, the INOC would have jurisdiction of more than 93 percent of Iraq's known petroleum reserves, leaving only 7 percent to the regional governments -- including the Kurdish region government.

The oil terminal at Al-Basrah (epa file photo)

Kurdish officials pointed that the original draft endorsed by the Iraqi cabinet, which includes Kurdish members, did not have the technical annexes. He said the additions violated the February agreement.

Kurdish officials said ceding virtually all of Iraq's all known oil fields to the state-run INOC is unconstitutional and vowed to oppose it in parliament. While, the Kurdish Alliance, with 58 out of 275 seats in parliament, does not have enough votes to defeat the bill, their opposition could delay its passage indefinitely, thereby increasing the strain on the Baghdad government.

The failure to push through the petroleum legislation would be a huge embarrassment to the al-Maliki government. In early April, Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani was optimistic enough to declare that it was " pass P favor.?< in are parties political all since months two within law [oil] the to achievable>

Crumbling Coalition

The snag with the hydrocarbon bill further underscores al-Maliki's overall eroding support. With the departure of the Al-Fadilah Party from the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) in March and the resignation of six ministers from Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc in April, al-Maliki seems increasingly isolated. If the Kurdish Alliance reaches an impasse and decides to withdraw, it would severely undermine the al-Maliki government.

In the wake of the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings, this political turmoil comes at particularly delicate time. Although, no major breakthroughs were made at the meetings, the international community did pledge $30 billion in financial commitments for Iraq through debt relief, loans, and grants. But Sunni Arab nations -- most prominently Saudi Arabia -- called on Iraq to enact political reforms; essentially a hint that the Shi'ite-led government is not doing enough to reach out to disaffected Sunnis.

However, al-Maliki may be placed in an untenable position. His Shi'ite allies have balked at the constitutional reforms demanded by Sunnis and a de-Baathification law that would allow former members of the Hussein regime to return to their government positions.

Nevertheless, the threat of a Sunni walkout does not cast al-Maliki's government in a favorable light in the eyes of Iraq's Sunni neighbors or in the international community. While it would be unlikely that support for Iraq would end, there may be increasing calls for new leadership as al-Maliki is increasingly viewed as incapable of delivering a political solution to the current crisis.