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Iraq: Will Al-Sadr Extend Militia Cease-Fire?

Will Muqtada al-Sadr bide his time, or unleash his forces? (epa) In August 2007, the militia loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr clashed with Iraqi police in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala during a religious festival, leaving over 50 people dead. The incident, which was widely blamed on the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, prompted al-Sadr to order his militia to freeze its activities for six months.

The cease-fire, which al-Sadr has essentially adhered to, has coincided with a dramatic reduction in violence. U.S. military officials have frequently heaped praise upon the young cleric for keeping his promise, and stressed that al-Sadr's ability to keep his militia in check has added to the drop in violence.

With the six-month deadline now set to end at the end of February, al-Sadr has not indicated whether he will continue the freeze or give the go ahead for his militia to resume activities. With the possibility of large-scale violence between Shi'ite factions breaking out in the south, the decision will have a significant impact on the security situation in Iraq.

Conflicting Signals

While al-Sadr has not publicly commented on the cease-fire, several of his followers have offered mixed signals into what could happen. On February 10, "Al-Hayat" quoted Sheikh Hazim al-Talaqani, a leading figure in the movement, as saying al-Sadr would most probably extend the truce for another six months in order to purge the movement of undesirable elements and restructure it.

Al-Sadr's office in Al-Najaf issued a statement on February 7 urging all adherents to refrain from violating the freeze order and warned that those who did would be expelled from the movement.

Conversely, several leaders in the al-Sadr movement called for ending the truce in response to the arrests and subsequent torture of al-Sadr loyalists in Al-Diwaniyah and Karbala by Iraqi security forces.

In addition, the establishment of a Shi'ite "Sahwa" (awakening) movement -- akin to the U.S.-backed Sunni tribal militias formed to fight Al-Qaeda -- to counter the Al-Mahdi Army has also inflamed the al-Sadr movement's leadership. They contend that the Sahwa is a U.S./Iraqi government creation that unfairly targets al-Sadr loyalists.

However, Salah al-Ubaydi, a spokesman for al-Sadr's office in the holy city of Al-Najaf, told AFP on February 12 that "all possibilities are open" and the final decision concerning the truce would be solely up to al-Sadr.

Pact With ISCI Ends

On February 17, the head of the al-Sadr movement's bloc in the Iraqi parliament, Nasr al-Rubay'i, told AFP that a deal the movement signed four months earlier with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is part of the government coalition, in a bid to reduce tensions "has failed and is cancelled."

The two groups have been locked in a bitter power struggle since 2004 for influence and control over the Shi'ite areas in central and southern Iraq. The Al-Mahdi Army has often clashed with Iraqi policemen -- many of whom are from ISCI's armed wing, the Badr Forces. The two groups have embarked on a campaign of tit-for-tat assassinations and bombings that have left scores killed and injured. The August 2007 incident in Karbala was widely seen as a clash between al-Sadr's movement and the ISCI.

Fearing that the violence could spiral out of control, the two groups signed an agreement on October 6 calling for a cease-fire and for the formation of joint committees to resolve ongoing disputes.

However, al-Rubay'i said that no committees were ever formed and blamed this on the ISCI. "Committees should have been created to resolve security problems in all the provinces. But they have not been implemented and this agreement is just a facade," he said.

The dissolution of the truce has created fears that armed clashes between al-Sadr's militia and the ISCI's forces could erupt again, particularly as the provincial elections scheduled for October 1 approach.

Still A Force

There are some possible benefits for al-Sadr to continue the cease-fire. U.S. military officials have suggested that support for al-Sadr's movement and his militia eroded in the second half of 2007, particularly after the Karbala incident. Those clashes, coupled with reports of undisciplined and thuggish behavior by members of the militia or by criminal gangs using their name as cover, created a backlash.

Extending the truce would allow al-Sadr to purge criminal elements from his movement while at the same time restoring his credibility among the Shi'ite faithful.

However, if history is any indication, it may be unwise to underestimate the power of the young Shi'ite cleric. He still has a dedicated following among the poorest and most marginalized Shi'a. Many Iraq observers argue that he still commands the single largest social and political movement in southern Iraq.

Furthermore, his political movement still has 30 seats in the 275-seat parliament, which is considerable influence. It is also widely believed that the movement is poised to make huge gains in the Shi'ite-dominated south in the October 1 provincial elections.

Significant gains by the movement would be a huge political victory for al-Sadr at the expense of the ISCI and its leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, his greatest rival. It would also position al-Sadr's movement to win more seats in the next general election.

Finally, his militia, which launched two major uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, is still fearsome. Increasingly provocative actions by the ISCI-dominated police and the Sahwa movement against the Al-Mahdi Army and al-Sadr loyalists in the south may give al-Sadr no choice but to unleash his militia. This, in turn, could lead to an all-out civil war among the Shi'a, which would significantly destabilize the south.

This would be a disastrous scenario for the United States, which would be compelled to halt its operations against Al-Qaeda in Iraq and intervene, jeopardizing the security gains achieved in the last year. Ironically, while U.S. military commanders praised the six-month truce for helping reduce sectarian violence, they may have unwittingly reaffirmed al-Sadr's significance in Iraq.

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