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Iraq: Is Al-Sadr Saving Face, Or Biding His Time?

(RFE/RL) September 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The violent clashes in the holy city of Karbala on August 28 between radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and Iraqi security forces -- many of whom were members of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) -- shocked many Iraqis.

Not because the clashes took place during a religious festival marking the birthday of the 12th Imam al-Mahdi, but because it was one of the most gratuitous displays of Shi'a-on-Shi'a violence since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, leaving 52 people dead and 279 wounded.

Attacks during Shi'ite religious festivals by Sunni extremists have been relatively commonplace, but it was rare to see such a blatant display of intra-Shi'ite hostility. The violence underscored the growing rift within the Shi'ite community, which has gone to considerable lengths to project an image of unity.

Signs Of Shi'ite Rift

The clashes in Karbala were only the latest incident pitting al-Sadr's militia against the SIIC's Badr Organization. On October 19, 2006, clashes erupted between the two groups in Al-Amarah that left 25 dead and more than 160 injured. The fighting began after the Badr Organization blamed the Al-Mahdi Army for the assassination of Qassim al-Tamini, a senior Iraqi intelligence officer and a member of the Badr Organization.

In addition, the assassination of four aides to Shi'ite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the last three months has only underscored the growing Shi'a rift and dissolution of Shi'ite unity. The SIIC has pledged its allegiance to al-Sistani, while al-Sadr's followers were seen by many as being behind the assassinations. Although al-Sadr has publicly denied that his followers were involved in the assassinations, hard-liners in al-Sadr's movement view al-Sistani as an obstacle to the group's influence in southern Iraq.

An all-out "intra-Shi'a civil war" in the south could lead to further political instability in Iraq. The Shi'ite-dominated political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which has offered crucial support for the United States, would probably fall apart. The chaos in the south would lead to a power vacuum, with the SIIC, Al-Sadr movement, and other disparate Shi'ite groups scrambling to stake out their places.

The complete rupture of the Shi'ite alliance would mean that the already tenuous political position of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would be further weakened. Al-Maliki vitally depends on the support of the UIA for his political survival; an irreparable rift could mean the end of his tenure as prime minister.

Moreover, a full-fledged armed conflict in southern Iraq would signal the opening of another violent front that the U.S. military would have to deal with. Already burdened with trying to root out Al-Qaeda-linked elements and stabilize central Iraq, the United States can ill afford to shift valuable resources to quell a major conflict in the south.

Indeed, with the gradual departure of British forces from southern Iraq, if Iraqi security forces themselves cannot prevent a major intra-Shi'a conflict, the responsibility will inevitably fall on the shoulders of the U.S. military. The involvement of U.S. forces in the south would give an impression to the Iraqis, as well as the American public, that the conflict was, in fact, spreading.

Al-Sadr's Surprise Call

Following the fierce fighting in Karbala, al-Sadr made a surprising announcement on August 29 when he ordered the Al-Mahdi Army to suspend all activities for six months in order to weed out rogue elements within the militia. U.S. and British officials have long suspected that some of the factions within his movement are operating outside al-Sadr's control.

Moreover, the Shi'a-on-Shi'a violence during an important religious festival has badly tarnished al-Sadr's image. Locals in Karbala and media reports have depicted his fighters as being the instigators, after armed Al-Mahdi Army members began provoking security forces who were guarding the shrines. Other reports also indicated that his fighters set fire to SIIC offices in Kufa, as well as in the Al-Iskandariyah and Al-Hamzah districts of Babil and in Baghdad's Al-Kadhimiyah neighborhood.

The six-month suspension could be seen as a form of damage control on the part al-Sadr, who is desperately trying to shed his reputation as a rabble rouser and project an image of a competent and mature leader of a nationalist movement bent on ridding the country of the occupation. The decision to withdraw his militia could be his way of deflecting some of the criticism and showing that he is trying to preserve Shi'ite unity and prevent the Shi'ite rift from spiraling out of control.

However, al-Sadr's decision may have been based more on self-preservation than upholding Shi'ite unity. The SIIC has developed relatively close ties to the United States and prolonged fighting between the Al-Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, or continued provocation by al-Sadr's militia, whether by rogue elements or legitimate members, would almost certainly have drawn in U.S. forces. The prospect of confronting the Badr Organization backed by U.S. firepower would not have appealed to al-Sadr's militia.

An Empty Gesture?

The suspension of activities could also be a stall tactic to give his militia time to regroup and wait for a more opportune moment to act. And this would not be the first time that al-Sadr has called on his militia to suspend activities.

During the opening phases of the Baghdad security operation that began in February, he ordered his militia to fully cooperate with the security plan and not engage U.S. and Iraqi troops, even when confronted. Reports on the ground indicated that the militia had essentially melted away into the populace.

The low profile taken by the Al-Mahdi Army coincided with the steep reduction in the number of sectarian killings, which U.S. officials have long accused the militia of being behind. However, in time, unidentified bodies began appearing again, a sign that the militia had returned. And reports of clashes between the Badr Organization and al-Sadr's militia became more frequent.

Considering al-Sadr's history of ambiguous statements, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to say that his militia will again be involved in another confrontation with either the Iraqi security forces or the Badr Organization. In fact, as British forces completely withdraw from the south and hand over security responsibility for the region to the Iraqis, the absence of a foreign military may embolden al-Sadr's militia to strike. Time is on the side of the al-Sadr and his militia, who know full well that coalition forces have to leave some time.

Muqtada Al-Sadr

Muqtada Al-Sadr

Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating against the U.S. presence in Iraq in October 2006 (epa)

A RADICAL CLERIC. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is a key figure in Iraq. He heads the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia and a political bloc that is prominent in parliament and the government. His ties to Iran have also provoked concerns in some quarters.


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