A Militia By Any Other Name
Hand in hand with this belief is the perception by some that al-Maliki's national reconciliation plan, which calls for the disbanding of all militias, would serve to weaken the raw power of the Shi'a vis-a-vis Sunni insurgent groups and Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), publicly endorsed al-Maliki's reconciliation plan when it was announced in late June. But the Shi'ite leader has criticized al-Maliki for not taking more decisive steps against insurgents. Al-Hakim also opposed an agreement forged last week with the U.S. government to post another 4,000 U.S. troops in Baghdad in an effort to bring security to the capital, and instead has lobbied for Iraqis to take greater responsibility for security.
And although he publicly endorses key components of the plan, including disbanding militias, in reality he is unlikely to dissolve his own militia. The Badr Corps is arguably the largest militia operating in Iraq. The militia claimed to have disbanded and changed its name in 2004 to the Badr Organization to reflect its purported reform into a humanitarian organization. Thousands of Badr militiamen joined the ranks of the country's security services, particularly Interior Ministry forces.
Al-Hakim has also begun promoting what he calls the work of "popular committees" in recent weeks. The committees appear to be nothing more than refashioned militiamen -- gangs of armed men enforcing security in some areas of the capital in an effort to support the official security forces and prevent terrorist attacks at the local level.
Militias To Replace U.S. Forces
He has referred to the work of the popular committees in two recent speeches, on July 29 in Al-Najaf and on August 2 in Baghdad, and has promoted them as an alternative to the multinational forces, claiming that the latter have actually hampered efforts to secure the country. "The security file should be handed over to Iraqi forces and no one should interfere with it. Interference in the work of Iraqi security forces prevents them from catching terrorists," he told supporters in Al-Najaf.
Al-Hakim's viewpoint is supported by fellow SCIRI member and Badr Organization chief Hadi al-Amiri, who told the same Al-Najaf gathering that rumors were circulating that some politicians had proposed replacing al-Maliki's government with a government of national salvation. Calling the proposal a plan to install a "military coup government," al-Amiri said the plan would bring the political process "back to square one...and we will not accept that."
Al-Amiri has also been vocal in his criticism of multinational forces in recent weeks. He told London-based "Al-Hayat" in a July 21 interview that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, "using the excuse of concern for the success of the political process, is impeding the [Iraqi] security forces' operations to confront the Saddamists."
Intra-Ethnic Power Struggle
The SCIRI-Badr resistance to multinational forces is partly related to a power struggle with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. While al-Hakim supports the disbanding of the Al-Mahdi Army, he does not consider the Badr Corps a militia, because it preceded the 2003 war and operated, much like the Kurdish peshmerga forces, as a national resistance group.
Badr and the Al-Mahdi Army have vied for the hearts and minds of Iraqi Shi'a since 2003, and have faced off in armed confrontations on several occasions.
Nevertheless, SCIRI and Badr are engaged in their own power struggle with al-Sadr for control over southern and central regions of the country. While they consider al-Sadr a rogue cleric, they are aligned with him (or more accurately, he has aligned with them) politically, and al-Sadr supporters hold 30 of the United Iraqi Alliance's 128 seats in parliament. Al-Sadr supporters also took control of a handful of ministries in al-Maliki's government, but three ministers have subsequently resigned.
Sunni Arab leaders claim that al-Sadr's militia is at least partly responsible for the violence that has engulfed the country since the February 22 bombing of Samarra's Golden Mosque. There is every reason to believe that SCIRI leaders subscribe to the same view.
The actions of the Al-Mahdi Army have so concerned multinational forces that the militia has become the object of several recent raids by U.S.-Iraqi forces aimed at capturing the leaders of "death squads" operating in the capital.
SCIRI and al-Sadr's movement do agree on one thing: both want the U.S.-led coalition forces out of Iraq. And both groups support a hard-line policy on Ba'athists.
Beyond that, the groups diverge. Al-Hakim and SCIRI support federalism, al-Sadr does not. Al-Hakim has openly battled Sunni groups linked to the insurgency, whereas al-Sadr, when the situation worked to his benefit, held cordial relations with at least one Sunni group purportedly tied to the resistance, the Muslim Scholars Association.
Moreover, some observers believe that al-Hakim is more focused on domestic Iraqi issues, while al-Sadr has broader regional goals, namely to establish himself as a regional player.
Can The Government Move Fast Enough?
Under normal circumstances, no prime minister would be judged so harshly for the performance of his administration less than three months after its formation, but the circumstances in Iraq necessitate action, and in the minds of many, al-Maliki's initiative has already failed.
That belief apparently prompted Iraq's four grand ayatollahs to issue a stern warning that the country was slipping further out of control. Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi issued a statement on behalf of the clergy claiming a popular uprising or intifada could soon erupt in southern Iraq, "Al-Zaman" reported on July 28.
Al-Najafi said that neither the government nor foreign troops have done anything to meet the needs of the people in the south. "We are afraid that the day of a massive popular uprising is approaching that will result in grave and unpredictable consequences," he added. Al-Najafi cited the government's failure to address security, the lack of public services, and rampant unemployment as contributing factors to the current public sentiment. "Al-Zaman" reported that security in the south has deteriorated to such a level that militias are almost in full control of the cities of Al-Basrah, Al-Amarah, and Al-Diwaniyah.
The government's announcement that it was moving forward with "Phase 2" of al-Maliki's security and reconciliation plan has also drawn the ire of many Iraqis, who say that it was never clear that the first phase of the plan had accomplished anything.
The August 2 announcement that Iraqi security forces will assume security for the entire country by year-end has many observers concerned that the government may be grasping at straws. Iraqi forces currently control security in only one of the country's 18 governorates, and such statements, without concrete progress to back them up, only negate the administration's credibility in the eyes of the Iraqi people.
Click to enlarge the image.
SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.