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Iraq: Cracking Down On Al-Sadr No Easy Task

Four people were killed in this Baghdad car bombing on January 23 (epa) January 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On January 23, the U.S. military announced it had arrested more than 600 fighters from Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army. Just four days earlier, Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. troops arrested senior al-Sadr aide Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji in Baghdad.

While Washington has often urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to rein in al-Sadr's militia, which has been blamed for much of Iraq's sectarian violence, he never seemed to make a move. Last week's crackdown, however, suggested to many that al-Maliki may have finally acquiesced to the U.S. demand.

Taking Serious Action

The initial crackdown on the Imam al-Mahdi Army by Iraqi and U.S. forces may be an indication that the militia's end is near. The mere fact that a crackdown actually occurred is important, since al-Maliki was previously unwilling to go after al-Sadr's fighters. It seems that his demands for the militia to disarm have finally been backed by tough action.

Although Prime Minister al-Maliki's current willingness to crack down seems to be genuine, if he is seen as bowing to U.S. pressure to crush al-Sadr's militia, then Iraqis -- particularly the Shi'a -- may perceive him as a weak U.S. puppet.

In addition, the lack of major public displays of outrage by al-Sadr supporters is perhaps an indication the movement does not currently have the popular support to withstand the moves against it. Previous attempts by U.S. forces to arrest high-ranking members of al-Sadr's circle provoked street protests and threats of retaliation.

Last week, by contrast, al-Darraji's arrest brought no protests or serious condemnation. In fact, the arrest was followed by what seemed to be a conciliatory gesture by al-Sadr toward al-Maliki, when al-Sadr's political faction announced that it had ended its boycott of the political process and decided to return to the Iraqi government.

Waning Public Support?

Al-Sadr may have realized that his position had reached an indefensible point and, fearing an all-out attack by U.S. forces, sought to present himself as more of an ally of the al-Maliki government and less of a pariah. Indeed, with the political process grinding to a halt, the al-Sadr movement's boycott was seen as one of the main obstacles preventing the parliament from carrying out its legislative duties.

However, despite the much-touted achievements, there are also some signs that the al-Mahdi Army crackdown is coming up short. It has been widely reported that movement leaders have ordered their fighters not to confront U.S. forces while they conduct security sweeps in Baghdad.

Baha' al-Araji, a leader in the al-Mahdi Army, told "Al-Zaman" on January 23 that militia fighters would not hinder the Baghdad security plan and would not retaliate against U.S. forces for the arrests of their comrades. The arrests of al-Darraji and the 600 militiamen did not produce any reprisal attacks.

"Al-Zaman" reported on January 15 that militiamen would temporarily disband and disappear into the populace, only to reemerge once U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq.

A Good Time For A Purge?

Moreover, the mass arrests of al-Mahdi Army fighters may directly benefit al-Sadr's leadership in the long run. There has been wide speculation among U.S. military officials that as the militia increased in size, it became more difficult for al-Sadr to control. It is believed that some of the militants may have broken away and formed "freelance" criminal gangs that have been operating beyond al-Sadr's control.

Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating in June 2006 against U.S. raids in Shi'ite neighborhoods (epa)

A crackdown by U.S. forces could be the ideal means by which to purge the militia of undesirable elements, resulting in a more streamlined and disciplined force.

The arrest of al-Darraji, a leading figure in al-Sadr's movement, was seen as the most explicit indication that al-Maliki's government was serious about going after the al-Mahdi Army. However, soon after al-Darraji's arrest, Iraqi government officials began sending conflicting signals concerning his detention. Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to al-Maliki, criticized the raid that led to al-Darraji's capture, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported on January 19.

"I do not think the arrest of Sheikh al-Darraji is part of the security plan," al-Rikabi said. "I would like to explain...that al-Darraji's arrest was not conducted in coordination with the Iraqi political leadership."

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government was planning to release al-Darraji as soon as he is questioned, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on January 20. "I am not positive whether he will be released today. However, after the interrogation is over, he will be treated and released in a respectful manner," he said.

The perceived reluctance by the Iraqi government to hold al-Darraji, who is suspected of having links to illegal armed groups, in custody is perhaps an indication that the crackdown will only focus on low-level figures, while sparing the leadership.

This scenario has been seen before. On October 17, 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 against Sunni Arabs. He was quickly released at al-Maliki's behest.

A U.S. Puppet

Although al-Maliki's current willingness to crack down seems genuine, if he is seen as bowing to U.S. pressure to crush al-Sadr's militia, then Iraqis -- particularly the Shi'a -- may perceive him as a weak U.S. puppet.

While al-Sadr's militia seems to be keeping a low profile during the crackdown, Sunni insurgents have not. A double suicide bombing on January 16 at Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, which has become a bastion for al-Sadr's political party, killed 70 Iraqis and wounded more than 170. Another double bombing at the Shi'ite commercial district of Al-Bab al-Sharqi on January 22 killed 78 and wounded 150.

Muqtada al-Sadr (epa file photo)

If these attacks continue, then it might be a matter of time before Shi'a demand the protection of the al-Mahdi Army. The leadership of al-Sadr's movement has continued to stress that the militia exists solely to protect Shi'ite citizens.

The al-Mahdi Army "are voluntary armed manifestations of self-defense," said the head of the Al-Sadr bloc in parliament, Naser al-Rubay'i, during a January 21 interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television. "This type of armament exists due to the government's weakness to ensure security for the citizens. The other type is terrorist armament. This type must be eliminated."

Another attack on the scale of the Al-Sadr City attack on November 23 that killed 215 people may force al-Maliki to end his hard-line policy against the militia. Worse yet, it may incite al-Sadr's followers to carry out reprisal attacks against Sunnis in the name of protecting their own.

Sectarian Iraq

Sectarian Iraq

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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.

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.