Al-Mahdi Army fighters in Al-Basrah last month (AFP)
Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued an ultimatum to the Iraqi government on April 19, warning that unless it ended its crackdown on his militia he would launch an "open war" on it. But al-Sadr's official spokesman, Salih al-Ubaydi, told RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo on April 22 that he does not expect al-Sadr to order the Imam Al-Mahdi Army to fight government forces.
Al-Ubaydi also said the current standoff with the government is politically motivated, and accused fighters affiliated with a rival Shi'ite party of carrying out Iran's work in Iraq.
RFE/RL: What is the status of the standoff between the government and the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and what is the situation on the ground?
Salih al-Ubaydi: Concerning the situation on the ground now with the Al-Mahdi Army, I can say all over Iraq [there] did not start any clashes against neither the Americans nor the Iraqi troops, and all what happened in Al-Nasiriyah and Al-Basrah three or four days ago, it has been some campaign [by] the Iraqi forces against our people.
But, in Al-Sadr City, there is a kind of mistreatment from the American troops and Iraqi troops toward the general Iraqi people. [When] I say general I mean civilians, because the snipers have been using the high buildings in order to kick people [out]. They think that will help them to stop any kind of conveying [movement] from street to street. But that has cost too much, because we have about 200 people who have been killed by [these snipers]. In addition to these, maybe 300 people have been killed by the raid from American airplanes.
RFE/RL: Do you think that al-Sadr will follow through with his statement and order the Al-Mahdi Army to fight the Iraqi and coalition forces?
Al-Ubaydi: Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr has made an announcement about two days ago and he has warned the Iraqi government to stop all this aggressive actions against the Iraqi people and especially against the Sadrists. About two weeks ago, when the crisis of Al-Basrah...stopped, after a kind of agreement between the Sadrists and the government, the government hasn't [adhered] to all the points of the agreement, and they have denied it and worked against what has been said during the agreement.
The government is now trying to make a kind of campaign of detention. If they do not find the accused man, they detain one [member] of his family; robbing, stealing, destroying during the campaigns, [these] are the main actions they do against civilians. So it is a kind of mess. They are making revenge [on] the Sadrists.
RFE/RL: You and other al-Sadr aides have claimed the government's security operations are politically motivated, because of upcoming governorate-council elections.
Al-Ubaydi: Not only that. We accuse [the government that] those actions not to be something for the security of Iraqi society. No. We think that those actions are politically motivated because of the new [October] elections, that's one, and in order to keep the Iraqi society in general in a kind of tension not to make a...focus upon the Iraqi-American [long-term security] agreement....
This agreement will give a legitimate point for American troops to stay in Iraq for a long time and it gives a legitimate point to the [Western] oil companies to invest in Iraqi oil for 99 years, and we think that this agreement will put Iraq in a very critical situation and a very critical position legitimately for a long time. We think that the government is trying to keep the Sadrists, to keep all the society in tension in order to do this agreement without protest.
RFE/RL: Do you believe that the political parties, such as Vice President Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim's party and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's party are afraid that they will lose power in the October elections?
Al-Ubaydi: It was obvious for them that for the new elections in October, they will lose too much of the power they have gained [since 2005]. These elections have been postponed before [more] than two years. There are many important decisions, political decisions. For example, the decision of federalism, practically working for federalism in southern Iraq. Also, it is one of the important things that if the Sadrists or general people, representatives, came to those new councils, [then] the al-Hakim plan for federalism will stop. It will not continue.
RFE/RL: The government has accused the Al-Mahdi Army of very serious crimes, and says that it has very close ties to Iran. The government has also said that al-Sadr no longer has control over it. How do you answer these accusations?
Al-Ubaydi: It is very well known that there are some political parties playing the Iranian role in Iraq. It is not the Sadrists, it is the al-Hakim party [the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq]. And it is very well known that Iran also has participated to make this campaign against the Sadrists in Al-Basrah -- because the Sadrists in Al-Basrah have good control, and at the same time they do not take their orders either from the American or the British consuls or from the Iranian consul there.
So, it is a kind of propaganda against the Sadrists to push [them] out from Al-Basrah, and they can work upon their investments inside Al-Basrah. The Iranians do not have this control upon the Sadrists, it is a kind of stain on our reputation, because Iran is not wanted, is not respected neither from the Arabic region nor from the European states.
RFE/RL: Does al-Sadr have control over all of the Al-Mahdi Army?
Al-Ubaydi: We do not say that we have control over all of them. But at the same time, we have started a very good work in order to make control upon this popular institution. And at the same time, we have done a good work to distinguish the bad people who have penetrated [it] in order to stain our reputation and during the two periods of stopping or freezing Jaysh Al-Mahdi's actions, we have done a good work.
At the same time, the government knows very well that there are many senior figures in the Iraqi police and the Iraqi Army who are killers, and who have committed many crimes under the authority of the government. But at the same time, [the government] did not accuse [the police and army] of [these crimes] and they did not try to put them in front of the courts or the law. So, it is the problem that we are trying to control our people, and we are trying to distinguish the bad figures [among] them. But the government does not accept [that there are] criminals within the Iraqi troops and does not like or accept to practice legal action against them.
RFE/RL: Do you expect wide-scale fighting to erupt between the government and the Al-Mahdi Army across the country?
Al-Ubaydi: I think Sayyid Muqtada does not accept any kind of clashes with the government troops. If any kind of open war starts, it will start against the [U.S.] occupation forces. But if the occupation forces try to make use of the Iraqi troops in front of them during [any such] clashes, we have to defend ourselves.
RFE/RL: Yesterday, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said he was asked to negotiate with the government on behalf of the Sadrists. Is this true?
Al-Ubaydi: Really, if [it is a] negotiation with the government, we accept any kind of dialogue with Iraqi parties. But, if the negotiation is with the American troops, we refuse any...channel of dialogue with the occupation forces.
RFE/RL: Do you think some agreement will be reached with the government?
Al-Ubaydi: Until now, there is no agreement. We [focus on] the points of agreement [that were reached] at the end of March is the most important thing that we have to practice on the ground. But the government until now refuses to accept [the agreement] although those points that we asked for are normal points [that] the government has to [address] for [they are the demands of] all people, and not just the Sadrists.
For example, we have about 1,000 families displaced [from their homes] out of Karbala, displaced out of Al-Diwaniyah, and Samawah, by the Iraqi forces. We asked the Iraqi forces to give or put enough security for those families to go back to their residential places, their communities, and it is a very, we think, legal proposal. Also, we ask that any kind of security operation has to be under the control of law, and also has to be within an acceptable style, not killing, not with robbing, not with destroying, not with kicking and killing the people.