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Iraq Report: March 3, 2006

3 March 2006, Volume 9, Number 9

KURDISH POLITICIAN DISCUSSES POLITICAL STANDOFF. RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo interviewed Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmud Uthman on March 2 to ask about political developments in Iraq following a decision by Sunni, Kurdish, and secular political groups to ask the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) to withdraw Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's nomination as prime minister.

RFE/RL: What is the situation now in Iraq? We heard that the Sunnis and the Kurds will ask the Shi'a to nominate another candidate to the premiership.

Uthman: That's right. We, the Kurdistan Coalition List, and the Sunni list [Iraqi Accordance Front] and Dr. [Iyad] Allawi's list, the Iraqi National List, we have asked the Shi'ite alliance list to nominate another candidate because we think it's not easy to have another few years with Mr. al-Ja'fari. And with our past experience and with all the...we have no reservations. That's right, we have asked officially, all three of us, and also the list of Salih al-Mutlaq [Iraqi Front for National Dialogue] is also supporting this.

So, almost all the lists except the Shi'ite list have asked for this, not because they have anything personal with [al-Ja'fari]. They think that he will continue the same policy as he had before, and before as the prime minister he failed to solve the country's problems, and now again, when the other lists don't agree [with him], then I think it will be difficult for him to succeed and for us to work with him.

We think the Shi'ite list has the right to -- of course -- appoint someone to be prime minister [because] they are the biggest list. But, they should consult; they should have consulted other lists when doing this. Last year, when Mr. al-Ja'fari was a candidate for prime minister, all the UIA list...they supported him. This year, it's not the same -- half have supported him, half have supported another one [Adil Abd al-Mahdi]. So, [al-Ja'fari] doesn't have a strong position within his own list also.

RFE/RL: Did you have any response yet from the UIA, either formally or informally?

Uthman: We are waiting. We just presented this today, so we don't expect on the same day to have an official response. We are waiting, and we will see what will happen.

RFE/RL: If they disagree, and Mr. al-Ja'fari's nomination is put to a vote in parliament, do you think that some of the Shi'a will vote against his nomination?

Uthman: I am sure of that because already within his own list, half of the list voted against him [in an internal UIA vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2006)] that's quite possible. And there's another possibility; if they insist on [al-Ja'fari] and they bring him, then the other lists, all of them together could form a bloc which is bigger than the UIA. They could then have their own prime minister.

RFE/RL: Some media reported today that the Sunnis, the Kurds, and perhaps Mr. Allawi's list were considering forming a bloc in the parliament. Is this true?

Uthman: No, we in the Kurdistan Coalition List, we are not having a bloc, against the UIA or with the UIA against the others and...that if things develop in a way that [the UIA] insists on Mr. al-Ja'fari, then we may have a parliamentarian bloc just to vote on a new prime minister and vote against al-Ja'fari. So it's possible, but I think, I hope that the UIA will be cooperative and take into consideration the role of all these lists [objecting to al-Ja'fari] and revise their decision. That's the best way to do it, that's democratic. Anyway, [al-Ja'fari] has now 64 MP votes out of 275, so he couldn't make a good prime minister...

RFE/RL: As a Kurd and a parliamentarian, do you feel that the Shi'ite list could retaliate against the Kurds later because of this?

Uthman: No, I don't think so. Maybe some people; I suppose al-Ja'fari would not be happy about it. But many within his own list are not supporting him.... Besides, we in Kurdistan are unhappy, especially now after [al-Ja'fari's] visit to Turkey [on February 28]. We are very unhappy about this because he made this visit without telling the president, without telling the assembly, without telling even the foreign minister, which is just unbelievable.

And, whatever discussions between Turkey and the Iraqi government without the Kurds being in it...we are suspicious because the Turkish policies are negative towards the Kurdish issue. That's why this has raised a lot of dissatisfaction [among] the population in Kurdistan. And [Kurds] think that if [al-Ja'fari] is going this way, than he will not implement Article 58 [of the constitution pertaining to Kirkuk] and the same old story will start again.

RFE/RL: Mr. al-Ja'fari, when he was in Turkey said that he will implement the articles of the constitution pertaining to Kirkuk to the letter.

Uthman: No, we don't believe him. It's a matter of faith and belief. If it's true, why didn't he take any Kurd with him [to Turkey]? Even the Foreign Minister [Hoshyar al-Zebari] wasn't with him. What does he have to hide from us? He took some [Iraqi] Turkomans with him, and some others. He didn't take any Kurdish minister with him, which is amazing, really -- as if he has something very important between him and Turkey to hide from the Kurds. We are suspicious about...we don't believe what he says. He could say anything but whether he will implement it or not, we are suspicious.

RFE/RL: President Jalal Talabani's response to this trip was to say that any agreements concluded by al-Ja'fari would not be legally binding under Iraqi law.

Uthman: That's right, because his government is a caretaker government. Usually, a caretaker government is not authorized to do these things. Secondly, the country is in blood -- every day we have tens of people who are killed. The security situation is very much deteriorating. At this stage instead of...being responsible for security, [al-Ja'fari's] leaving the country like this and going abroad -- [it] is not appropriate. I think none of these responsible [leaders] should go abroad now. They should be here solving the security and political problems inside.

RFE/RL: Muqtada al-Sadr's support was one of the key reasons that Mr. al-Ja'fari was nominated by the UIA. As you know, he holds a lot of power as far as the street. Do you think that these tensions are going to spill over more than they have in the past week? Do you expect a big reaction on the streets?

Uthman: No, I don't think so. Even if there is a reaction it will know the people on the streets...may be a bit dissatisfied with all politicians, including the president, the prime minister, all of us because we haven't solved their problems. [Iraqis] are suffering from every sort of problem, the security situation is very bad, and they think that...for the politicians to just work out their government, or solve their I think maybe there are people who will show their feelings against this delay in the political process...not for any particular one or against any particular one but maybe they are unhappy about all these delays.

RFE/RL: Do you expect that it will take much longer now to form the government?

Uthman: Unfortunately, sometimes things come up and they take more time. For example, [the February 22 bombing of the Shi'ite] shrine in Samarra, when it was destroyed, and then the reactions came in attacks on mosques here and there.... This has delayed the political process of course...but that's what's going on in Iraq, the reality. As far as the political things are concerned, I think it's better to have a little delay and then have a decent prime minister and a government than going into a government where the prime minister is under threat and their will be problems in between [parties], they don't trust each other...because maybe then the results will be more negative if you just go in with all the problems without solving them. It's better to wait a bit...than going into [a government] in which you don't believe in. That's the problem that one has to talk about and think about.

RFE/RL: Because of the structure of the parliament, in order to approve any nominee in parliament, they need 184 votes [two-thirds majority].

Uthman: But, it's not two-thirds for everything. When you choose the president and his two vice presidents, we need [a] two-thirds vote. But that's only in the first round. If in the first round you don't get [a] two-thirds vote, then in the [next] round, you [only need] an absolute majority -- that's the constitution. The same goes for the prime minister.... So, I think those things are not a big obstacle.

SHI'ITE LEADERS DISCUSS VISIT TO TURKEY. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) interviewed Iraqi Transportation Minister Salam al-Maliki and Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid al-Bayati in Baghdad about their participation in the February 28 meeting with Turkish officials in Ankara. The delegation, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, evoked a terse response from President Jalal Talabani, who claimed al-Ja'fari should have informed the presidency council and other members of the cabinet of his plans to visit Turkey (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). The interview was broadcast on March 2.

Al-Maliki: We discussed several issues concerning land transport and ways of strengthening the transport between Iraq and Turkey. Turkey has responded positively to the idea of opening a new border crossing between Iraq and Turkey. There has also been a wish to expand the airline connections and this will be hopefully implemented, too. The possibilities of developing railway connections between Iraq and Turkey have been discussed as well, beside other topics.

I believe that the visit was really positive and that it will have good effects on the Iraqi-Turkish scene. We have been trying to strengthen and expand the relations with neighboring countries, and Turkey is an important country for the relations of Iraq.

RFI: Turkey has expressed concern over the security situation in Iraq after the recent Samarra bombings, and voiced its readiness to support Iraq in all fields.

Al-Maliki: Turkey hopes that the next government [in Iraq] will be a national-unity government. We told them that the political forces in Iraq, and the United Iraqi Alliance as one of them, have the same goal: that the next government be a national-unity government representing the whole specter and all the communities of the Iraqi people, but respecting the election results, as you know [the position of the United Iraqi Alliance].

Turkey, represented by its Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] and President [Ahmet Necdet Sezer], expressed its full readiness to support Iraq in all fields. The ambitions put forward by Turkey were indeed in the interest of the Iraqi people, of the unity [of Iraq], and management of the security situation. They are very uneasy about the security situation.

RFI: The Iraqi government visit to Turkey that has been criticized by the Presidency Council as a breach of [Iraq's interim constitution known as] the Transitional Administrative Law. The visit took place upon the invitation from Turkey's Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan], Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid al-Bayati explained.

Al-Bayati: When an Iraqi official with the rank of minister receives an invitation, it is natural that he asks the Council of Ministers for approval of his trip. When the prime minister is invited, in some cases he replies to this invitation himself.

What happened with the Turkey visit was that Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a delegation to express solidarity with the Iraqi government and people after the incident of the blowing up the dome of Imams Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari Shrine [in Samarra on February 22]. He also addressed an invitation to Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to visit Turkey. The Prime Minister [al-Ja'fari] accepted the invitation and the visit took place on the background of previous relations between the two countries and to seek the support of the Turkish government for the formation of a national-unity government in Iraq.

RFI: One of the reasons why the Iraqi Presidency Council has criticized the prime minister might be that he did not include Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari in the delegation. Hamid al-Bayati said that the latter entrusted him with joining the delegation to Turkey.

Al-Bayati: Being the deputy foreign minister, I was asked by the foreign minister, who is my supervising official, that I accompany the delegation to Turkey, which I consequently did. We conducted effective talks with officials including Turkey's Prime Minister [Erdogan], Foreign Minister [Abdullah Gul], President of the Republic [Sezer], and a number of other cabinet ministers.

RFI: Some sources say that the concern of the Kurds [in Iraqi politics, among whom is Iraq's President Jalal Talabani,] was due to the inclusion of some Turkoman representatives in the Iraqi prime minister's delegation to Turkey. Hamid al-Bayati said, however, that the talks in Turkey touched on neither the Turkoman question nor the issue of Kirkuk city.

Al-Bayati: The issue of Turkomans was not included in the talks, and the issue of Kirkuk has been dealt with in the [new] constitution and, previously, in the Transitional Administration Law. Iraqis, with their political forces and government, have been doing their best to find a convenient solution to the Kirkuk issue in accordance with the constitution and Iraqi laws.

RFI: Some media reports said a meeting was held [on March 2] in the Baghdad office of Kurdistan Regional President Mas'ud Barzani, gathering all major political blocs except the United Iraqi Alliance to discuss the results of the visit of Turkey and to determine the position of those blocs to [al-Ja'fari as] the nominee of the United Iraqi Alliance for prime minister. Informed sources in the Presidency Council have denied that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani attended the meeting. (Translated by Petr Kubalek)

PARLIAMENTARIAN DISCUSSES AL-SADRIST VIEW OF GOVERNMENT. RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo interviewed Iraqi parliamentarian Qusay al-Suhail on February 27 to ask about rising political tensions in Iraq following the February 22 bombing of Samarra's Golden Mosque. Al-Suhail also discussed the al-Sadrist perspective in negotiations over the composition of the incoming Iraqi government. Al-Suhail is a Shi'ite parliamentarian and supporter of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

RFE/RL: Can you tell us about yesterday's meeting between Muqtada al-Sadr's representatives and the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association?

Al-Suhail: At this moment, we have a very extensive meeting with the Sunni association, but now there is a very intense battle in Nahrawan in the Diyala province.... Some Sunni tribesmen are attacking some Shi'ite houses.

RFE/RL: Is the Mahdi Army [al-Sadr's militia] involved in these battles?

Al-Suhail: No. We made a very extensive connection with the Muslim Scholars Association and the Iraqi Islamic Party to stop these battles. We are still in consultations with them.

RFE/RL: Muqtada al-Sadr in his February 26 speech in Al-Basrah spoke about fighting multinational forces to force the U.S. military and foreign military forces out of Iraq.

Al-Suhail: Yes. He [called on] both Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims to make a unified prayer [service] and to clean all of the destroyed and damaged mosques. Sunnis and Shi'ites are taking the role of cleaning the mosques, and they will attend a common prayer [service].

Now I have just received an order to invite all political parties and political leaders to participate in a big demonstration in Iraq to express the unification of the Iraqi people. This demonstration will be in the next week.

RFE/RL: We saw some reports in the Western media over the weekend that Mahdi militiamen were protecting Sunni mosques, but in some cases the militiamen were claiming the mosques for themselves.

Al-Suhail: Yes I read these reports.... These reports are full of mistakes.... During Saddam's regime, some Shi'ite mosques and Shi'ite husayniyah [Shi'ite house of prayer] were captured by the government and made into Sunni mosques. Some Shi'ite people remember this -- which they regard as criminal -- and they would like to recover these mosques. But, Muqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah [Ali] al-Sistani ordered people to evacuate these mosques and [end] this problem.

RFE/RL: So this is not happening anymore?

Al-Suhail: Partially. Most of the mosques were evacuated and most of them are protected by Shi'a. And you have to know that people who were wearing black clothes did not necessarily belong to the Mahdi militia. Anyone can wear black clothes [note: Western news media have reported that Mahdi militiamen dressed in their traditional black uniforms were controlling mosques and whole neighborhoods of Baghdad]

RFE/RL: We saw a report that Mr. al-Sadr was asking the Mahdi Army not to wear black clothes.

Al-Suhail: Yes. And also he [asked] the Iraqi government to arrest anyone wearing black clothes. Some terrorists are now wearing black clothes.

RFE/RL: Regarding the talks surrounding the next government, when will the parliament convene?

Al-Suhail: We have a new interpretation for the constitution. In our conversations with the Kurdish list, Mr. Fu'ad Ma'sum, who is the head of the National Assembly, said that the government formation should be under the control or under the condition of the new constitution, whereas the invitation for the opening ceremony of the Chamber of Deputies will be according to the Transitional Administrative Law [TAL]. Therefore, we have two interpretations for this. I think the opening of the Chamber of Deputies will be according to the TAL.

RFE/RL: Which means what?

Al-Suhail: It means the president and the head of the National Assembly would have a sufficient time or would like to invite the members at the time [of their choosing]. It will be maybe one month.

RFE/RL: But the constitution calls for a two-week period, which ended on Saturday [February 25].

Al-Suhail: Yes, but the constitution is not applicable at this stage.... The constitution will be applicable [after] the opening ceremony of the Chamber of Deputies. In this stage we are still under the application of the TAL.

RFE/RL: Do you agree with this?

Al-Suhail: Partially. I think most political parties agree that they need some time to complete their negotiations and their common meetings [before] declaring the opening ceremony. And I think this is useful. In the previous [transitional government], we had the National Assembly for 10 months and we [took] two months to form the government. And [now] we have a four-year [term] and we think that one or two months will not affect the final results of the government.

RFE/RL: About Muqtada al-Sadr's regional tour: He was in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria...what is the purpose of these visits?

Al-Suhail: His purpose was to assist in political efforts to enhance the Iraqi situation. There was a great [strain in relations] between Iraq and Syria. It appeared that most of the terrorists coming to Iraq came through Syria, and after [a period] there were no diplomatic relations between Iraq and Syria; there was a great blockage between them. Therefore, Muqtada al-Sadr's effort was to enhance the relationship between Iraq and Syria -- to open or clean the causes of the [poor] relations.

RFE/RL: What about Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists coming from Syria to Iraq?

Al-Suhail: I think it was discussed but Syria insists that they prevent Al-Qaeda from passing through Iraq and we are still unsatisfied with their interpretations. Our evidence suggests that many terrorists are still coming from Syria. The border is some 400 kilometers long and this area is completely a Sunni area and the Sunnis may facilitate the passing of Al-Qaeda and [Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Mus'ab] al-Zarqawi followers into Iraq.

RFE/RL: Do you think that there will be a closer relationship between the supporters of al-Sadr and Sunni Arabs in the new parliament?

Al-Suhail: We have a great understanding and continuous cooperation with Sunni groups and you can say that the al-Sadr group that belongs to the United Iraqi Alliance is the main connection [between] Sunni and Shi'ite groups. We are still in continuous cooperation with them.

RFE/RL: What about Iyad Allawi and his relationship with the Sunni groups? As I understand it, al-Sadr supporters do not approve of Mr. Allawi and his participation in the next government.

Al-Suhail: This is not completely correct. Someone belonging to al-Sadr's group said there is a red line that Allawi should not cross. This is not true. We say that we are going with the United Iraqi Alliance, and if the alliance chooses to open a dialogue with all Iraqi lists, then we will accept [that].

RFE/RL: Some people are saying that the nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to remain prime minister is problematic. The supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr supported this nomination. Do you think this will change now, and perhaps Adil Abd al-Mahdi or someone else will be nominated to the position?

Al-Suhail: Absolutely not. Mr. al-Ja'fari won a vote in the United Iraqi Alliance and it is very important to note that the prime minister's nomination is an internal matter for the United Iraqi Alliance. As we accept Mr. Jalal Talabani to the nomination of the presidency, others should accept who the United Iraqi Alliance selects [for prime minister].... Al-Sadr greatly supported al-Ja'fari. We think that Mr. Ibrahim al-Ja'fari will manage the problems in a good way, especially those problems dealing with Sunnis and Kurds.

RFE/RL: Do you support Jalal Talabani to stay on as president?

Al-Suhail: It is not our concern. The problem of the presidential selection is a matter for the Sunni Arabs and the Kurdistan [Coalition] List. Personally, I think that the presidency should go to a Sunni Arab.... As you know, the face of Iraq is Kurd and the foreign minister is Kurd; this is not representative of the Iraqi case. I think the presidency is better to go to the Sunni Arabs.

RFE/RL: Muqtada al-Sadr has also said believed the president of Iraq should be an Arab.

Al-Suhail: Yes, because Iraq is a part of the Arab homeland.

RFE/RL: Kurdish leaders have never tried to take Iraq away from its role in the Arab world.

Al-Suhail: They have their own opinions, but I think it's very important to express our tendencies to the Arab people, to the Arab leaders...we are convinced that we, as Shi'a, are a minority in the Islamic world, and a minority in the Arab is better for us that the president of Iraq is a Sunni Arab. This is my personal opinion.

RFE/RL: What about Talabani's performance in the transitional government?

Al-Suhail: Mr. Talabani is a very ambitious man. He would like to make an important amendment to the constitution. He would like to extend his authority as president. Our governmental system is parliamentarian. The prime minister and the head of the National Assembly are the most effective political leaders in Iraq. Mr. Jalal Talabani would like to make a significant amendment to the constitution to extend his authority. This is a very difficult task and I think this will be rejected by the Chamber of Deputies.

RFE/RL: If this were a Sunni president or a Shi'ite president, would you not change the constitution to give them more power?

Al-Suhail: It depends. As I said previously, the face of Iraq should be Arab, because Iraq belongs to the Arab homeland. We do not reject the Kurds but it's unsatisfactory for us that the president, the minister of foreign affairs, and the minister of planning are all Kurds. This is not representative of the Iraqi case.

RFE/RL: Muqtada al-Sadr has said that he would be willing to fight multinational forces in Iraq. Can we expect some kind of armed conflict from al-Sadr?

Al-Suhail: Not in that way. He said that the multinational forces [do not take] responsibility for the events now happening in Iraq. American [forces] handicap the Iraqi troops. Some of the Iraqi troops have very simple machine guns. Most of them have only AK[-47]s whereas the terrorists have very developed guns, RPG-7s, explosives, dynamite, and sometimes they have Katushya rockets. Americans should enhance the ability of the Iraqi army, should effectively assist in supplying the Iraqi forces with modern or developed [weapons] and military equipment, assist them in facing the terrorists.

RFE/RL: But the Americans are helping the Iraqi forces, so why do you want the Americans to leave?

Al-Suhail: Their assistance is not enough. We are on the ground. We have seen what the policemen are carrying.

RFE/RL: If the Americans leave, what will happen to the Iraqis, with all this terrorism?

Al-Suhail: This is a very difficult question.... There should be a balance between the rebuilding of the Iraqi security forces and the gradual leaving of American troops.

RFE/RL: Is Muqtada al-Sadr seeking a position in the new Iraqi government?

Al-Suhail: No, he wouldn't like to participate in the government. He has 14 [sic] followers in the parliament, and I think according to the present situation, at least three or four of them will be ministers.

RFE/RL: Which ministries are they seeking?

Al-Suhail: We are going to the service ministries: Transportation, Municipalities, Electricity, Agriculture, Education, and not prominent ministries. We have very simple ambitions. We would also like to concentrate our efforts on the Ministry of Civil Society.

IS IRAQI CLERIC STIRRING THE POT OR PROMOTING PEACE? Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been widely praised for his role in staving off a major sectarian split in Iraq since the February 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. While the cleric has taken a leading role in calling for unity and calm, he has at the same time rallied Iraqis to demonstrate against the presence of multinational forces in Iraq.

Al-Sadr has spent much of the past two months on a regional tour aimed at reshaping his image into that of a peacemaker, visiting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. He cut his stay in Lebanon short to return to Iraq following the Samarra bombing.

Throughout his regional tour, al-Sadr portrayed himself as a defender -- saying his militiamen would fight to defend Iran if it were attacked by the United States -- and mediator -- volunteering to broker peace between Syria and Lebanon.

The cleric, who by all accounts is not seeking a position for himself in the incoming Iraqi government, has argued that relations between Iraq and its neighbors have been damaged by the war in his country. At home, al-Sadr supporters, who ran as part of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list in the December legislative elections, are moving to the fore of politics. Thirty-two of them will sit in the new parliament.

Al-Sadr's men in parliament will push for a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq. And it is likely they will elicit the UIA's support for their cause. The UIA will have 128 seats (including al-Sadr's 32 supporters) in the 275-seat chamber.

The recent increasing tensions between U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the UIA could lead to strong support within the alliance for the initiative. The tensions with Khalilzad arose after al-Sadr supporters helped push through the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to be the faction's candidate as prime minister after the new legislature convenes. The Kurds and Sunni Arabs -- and according to some accounts the United States -- preferred another Shi'ite contender, Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi lost an internal UIA poll to al-Ja'fari by just one vote.

Using The Sunnis

Al-Sadr has worked hard to align his movement with some Sunni Arab groups -- in particular the Muslim Scholars Association -- over the past three years as part of his goal of driving multinational forces from Iraq and establishing an Islamic state there. But time and again, he has proven that his alliances only last as long as they suit his needs.

The behavior of his militiamen in recent days leaves little question about their true intentions. According to media reports, militiamen from al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army hurried to protect Sunni Arab mosques in Baghdad and other cities following the retaliatory attacks last week. But as the days wore on, militiamen informed Sunnis that they were seizing many of the mosques, claiming that they were originally Shi'ite mosques that were handed over to Sunnis by former President Saddam Hussein.

Al-Sadr militiamen did the same in 2003, which the cleric defended. When questioned about such seizures in September 2003, he said: "They [the mosques] were ours. Saddam Hussein stole them from us and we have taken them back. If the Sunnis want to come and pray here, they can do so on [the] condition that they will follow a Shi'ite imam in prayers. We are the majority and the majority must be respected." According to media reports, at least some, but likely not all, of the mosques have been returned to Sunnis since then.

This time, al-Sadr reportedly scolded his followers for trying to seize mosques. Parliamentarian and al-Sadr supporter Qusay al-Suhail told RFE/RL on February 27 that reports of mosques being seized were grossly exaggerated.

According to Western media, al-Sadr militiamen have also engaged in other acts of violence against Sunni Arabs in recent days, including the burning of mosques, the killings of clergy, and attacks on civilians. There are also reports that Shi'ite militiamen -- some of them aligned with al-Sadr -- have driven Sunnis from some mixed Muslim communities.

One al-Sadr aide claimed that the militiamen have even "arrested" some Sunnis, reported on February 26. Sahib al-Amiri claimed the detainees will be handed over to the government. In 2004 al-Sadr was found to be operating a makeshift court in Al-Najaf (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," September 10, 2004), with mutilated bodies and torture machines allegedly discovered.

Militiamen from the Al-Mahdi Army reportedly freely patrolled the streets of Baghdad over the past several days while the rest of the city remained under tight curfew, which in itself demonstrates the power of the militia. Shi'ite-dominated government forces apparently made no attempt to control the movements of the militiamen, either out of fear or loyalty -- perhaps a little of both.

Al-Sadr Turns Up The Rhetoric Against Multinational Forces

On the street level, al-Sadr is using the tensions to generate a mass campaign for the withdrawal of multinational forces, a movement he hopes the government will be unable to ignore. Building on statements made by Sunni and Shi'ite leaders in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, al-Sadr told his followers on February 26 that terrorism in Iraq was rooted in the presence of foreign troops there.

The cleric's calls for national unity are directed at binding Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs together against the United States and the international coalition. The first step in this will be the holding of a joint Sunni-Shi'ite demonstration against multinational forces in Baghdad in the coming days. By rallying the two sects, al-Sadr hopes to force Iraq's political leaders to call for an accelerated withdrawal of multinational forces.

Speaking to supporters in Al-Basrah on 26 February, al-Sadr blamed the United States for the February 22 bombing of Shi'ite shrines in Samarra, saying Washington's goal in Iraq is to turn Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs against one another. He claimed the United States has turned Ba'athist and Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents "into a weapon for the annihilation of the Iraqi people, [a weapon against] stability and independence."

"The U.S. troops withdrew from the site [of the Golden Mosque] so that it could be blown up," al-Sadr alleged. Saying that Iraq's enemy is trying to stir up sedition, he asked his followers: "Do you want to back the enemy...? Do you want to back the occupier who is dismembering our homeland and killing our sons?"

"At first it was an Islamic war on the crusaders [multinational forces], but the war went from being waged on the crusaders to being waged among Muslims themselves," al-Sadr claimed. Referring to Shi'ite criticisms of calls by U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad for a national-unity government, al-Sadr told his followers: "Whether the U.S. ambassador leaves [Iraq] or not, what will that do if the head of the snake remains here? Cut off the head of the snake, then the entire evil will go away." He demanded that multinational forces leave Iraq, saying "the evacuation of the occupiers is the most important prerequisite for achieving security in Iraq."

Addressing reports of British soldiers torturing Iraqis in Al-Basrah, the cleric said, "We got rid of Saddam only to have it be replaced by another dictatorship, the dictatorship of Britain, America, and Israel."

Al-Sadr last attempted to incite resistance to the international coalition through his newspaper, "Al-Hawzah," in 2004. That move prompted the Coalition Provisional Authority to shut the publication down. The situation in Iraq is much different today, and it is unlikely the Shi'ite-led government would have the power or the resolve take action against al-Sadr for inciting violence. Most likely, the cleric will continue to operate with impunity.

As Iraq straddles the line between unrest and civil war, the actions of al-Sadr in the coming days will have a major influence on the direction of the country's future. A call to arms by the cleric would be nearly impossible for the Iraqi government to contain. For multinational forces already battling a thriving insurgency, it would prove an unwelcome challenge. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on February 28.)