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Iraq: Al-Sadr Threatens Government With 'Open War'

Muqtada al-Sadr is still a force among Iraqi Shi'a (epa) On April 19, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued an ultimatum to the Iraqi government, warning that his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, would launch an "open war" against Iraqi and U.S. forces if the government did not call off military operations targeting the militia.

Al-Sadr claimed that despite his efforts to encourage peace through a cease-fire he declared for his militia in September, the government has been ungrateful and is now acting as "the third side" to target the Sadrists, after the Sunnis and the Americans. Reminding the government of its attempts to defeat the militia in May and August 2004, he asked, "Do you want a third uprising?"

This is the strongest statement yet from the cleric, who remains in hiding in Iran. Iraqi forces launched a military operation targeting the Al-Mahdi Army in Al-Basrah last month that ended in a stalemate. The operation was relaunched last week with the support of U.S.-led coalition forces, and the Iraqi military now says it has cleared the southern city of militiamen, though security operations, including house-to-house searches, continue. Fighting has also continued in other southern cities, such as Al-Nasiriyah.

"Had it not been out of religious principle, which for me is one of the constants, not to kill a Muslim...we would have known how to deal with you, particularly after we have temporarily suspended the Al-Mahdi Army and made initiatives to defuse crises and end armed manifestations," al-Sadr told the government. He claimed that the government's targeting of the militia is based on a desire to eradicate it as a "popular base" ahead of the governorate elections slated for October.

"I issue the last warning and statement to the Iraqi government to desist from error, to walk the path of peace, and renounce violence against its people. Otherwise, it will be like the government of the 'destructive' [a reference to the United States] even if all sides ally themselves with it, for they were our allies before and they might be [again] in the future.... If [the government] does not desist and curb its defiance and that of the militias that have infiltrated it [a reference to Shi'ite militiamen from the rival Badr Corps that now fill the ranks of army and police] then we will declare it an open war until liberation," al-Sadr said.

Sadrists Say Campaign Politically Motivated

Several weeks before the Al-Basrah campaign began, al-Sadr's supporters maintained that government forces were engaged in a campaign to eliminate all opposition in southern Iraq ahead of the upcoming local elections. Sadrists said the leading Shi'ite parties in government, al-Sadr's chief rivals, were fearful that they would lose control over the majority of southern governorates to the Sadrists in the elections, and thereby lose support for their federalism project.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the strongest Shi'ite parties in the ruling coalition, has long promoted his vision of a super-region that would consist of some nine governorates extending from just south of Baghdad to Al-Basrah. The region would give the Shi'a, and al-Hakim's party, control over vast oil reserves, and equally important, control over access to Iraq's only seaport.

Al-Sadr spokesman Salih al-Ubaydi tells RFE/RL he does not expect the order to be given to fight government forces.
As security operations targeting Al-Mahdi militiamen were launched, the Sadrists cried foul, saying the timing of the operations proved their theory was correct. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's threat to prevent al-Sadr supporters from contesting the elections (al-Sadr doesn't have a political party, rather his supporters run as independents affiliated with what has become known as the Al-Sadr Trend) unless the Al-Mahdi Army disbanded, added fuel to the Sadrists' theory that the crackdown was politically motivated.

Indeed, the crackdown came just weeks after al-Sadr renewed his militia's six-month cease-fire. Iraqi and coalition forces have argued, however, that rogue militiamen, loosely affiliated with al-Sadr and supported by Iran, did not adhere to the cease-fire, and needed to be brought under control, as their continued attacks threatened to destabilize the state. Several Iraqi and U.S. officials have maintained in recent days that the government has no issue with the Al-Mahdi Army per se, but rather seeks to disrupt Iranian-supported militias.

From a military perspective, the timing of the operations, which seek to crush the militia through coordinated operations across southern Iraq, appears right. British forces remain on the ground in Al-Basrah, and with large swaths of Baghdad now cleared of insurgents, U.S. forces taking part in the surge can focus on bringing security to Baghdad's Al-Sadr City.

From a political perspective, the targeting of Sadrists helps improve the reputation of Prime Minister al-Maliki among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, and among Sunni regional states, which Iraq and the United States are actively seeking to reengage on the diplomatic front as an alternative to increasing Iranian intervention.

Al-Mahdi Army Too Strong?

But can such a battle be won? Iraqi and coalition forces suggest that formerly hard-core al-Sadr loyalists are now fed up with the behavior of rogue Al-Mahdi militiamen. Al-Sadr, who fled Iraq several months ago, allegedly to pursue further clerical training in Iran, has lost support as well, primarily because of his decision to call on supporters to fight while he remains safe outside the country.

Still, the cleric claims to have 1 million fighters. Even if his militia numbers one-quarter of that, they could prove a formidable challenge to Iraqi and coalition forces, particularly if they are as well armed as some claim. Iraqi security personnel who took part in the initial fighting in Al-Basrah in late March said the militia was better armed and equipped than the Iraqi Army.

Moreover, bringing security to Al-Sadr City will be an enormous challenge, given its area -- about half the size of Manhattan -- and population, which numbers 3 million, or one-third of the total population of Baghdad. The crackdown must also deal with remaining Sadrist strongholds in Dhi Qar, Al-Qadisiyah, and the militia's presence in the holy cities of Al-Najaf, Al-Kufah, and Karbala.

There is no doubt that the Al-Mahdi Army must be disbanded. But as the 2004 clashes showed, it will not go easily. The fight will be bloody and probably unpopular in some areas, which is why the government is pushing hard to quickly bring economic subsidies, including reconstruction projects and jobs, into areas cleared of militiamen.

Al-Sadr's movement has in many areas been the sole provider of health care and other vital assistance to the poor in these areas, and the state will need to move quickly on several fronts if it is to win over the long-term trust and support of Shi'a living in Sadrist strongholds.