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Iraq Report: February 21, 2008

Will Al-Sadr Extend Militia Cease-Fire?

By Sumedha Senanayake

Will Muqtada al-Sadr bide his time, or unleash his forces?

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.

Sunni Groups Vie For Control Of Western Region

By RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo

The Sunni tribes' influence in Baghdad is growing

Disputes are emerging in several Iraqi governorates between awakening councils and local administrators. The councils, formed by tribal leaders last year to fight Al-Qaeda, are demanding a greater role in the policing and governing of their areas.

In Al-Anbar, tribal leaders from the Al-Anbar Salvation Council have demanded seats on the governorate council, angering the Iraqi Islamic Party, which currently controls the council. Tribal leaders have threatened to take violent action against the party should their demand go unheeded.

The Islamic Party claims to be the only party authorized to govern Al-Anbar because of its participation in the December 2005 elections. The Al-Anbar Salvation Council contends that the Islamic Party bought votes in the election and is not truly representative of the region's population. The salvation council wants Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to intervene and force a new governorate election. Should the salvation council compete in local elections, it would probably attract significant support.

Tensions between the competing groups have been building for months, but worsened after the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), to which the Islamic Party belongs, pulled its ministers from government in August. In an apparent bid to maintain a Sunni Arab presence in government, al-Maliki offered the posts to members of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council. Al-Tawafuq reacted harshly, disparaging the qualifications of the council members and claiming they had no base of support in the governorate.

Salvation council member Ali Hatim, who is a leader of the Al-Dulaym tribe, told RFE/RL in a February 7 interview that al-Maliki's intervention is necessary because the governorate council's election commission is comprised solely of Islamic Party representatives. Under the constitution, Hatim said, the election commission should be comprised of independents. Hatim said he and salvation council head Hamid al-Hayis sent an official complaint in this regard to Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani. Should the government fail to restructure the committee, Hatim said, there will be no point in holding new elections, because they could not possibly be free and fair. "We can expect no changes," he claimed.

Regarding the Islamic Party's claim that it is the rightful representative of Iraqis living in Al-Anbar because of its election win, Hatim said: "There was no voting" because the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq controlled the streets. Rather, he claimed, the Islamic Party "hired people" to vote for it in the national election. He argued that the constitution and the law will support the salvation council's claim.

Meanwhile, Al-Anbar Salvation Council head al-Hayis told RFE/RL on February 7 that the council has launched a signature campaign in the governorate to support its complaint against the Islamic Party.

Al-Hayis said the salvation council has informed al-Mashhadani that the Islamic Party should withdraw from the governorate within 30 days, or the council will forcibly remove the party and its supporters from the governorate.

Asked if the Islamic Party did not have some right to be active in Al-Anbar, al-Hayis told RFE/RL: "They don't deserve anything. We are against giving them even one vote." In an interview with the London-based "Al-Hayat" published on February 8, al-Hayis said the tribes "fought Al-Qaeda and presented our sons to protect" the people of Al-Anbar while the Islamic Party holds all the power in the local government.

Groups Trade Accusations

Both sides have traded accusations that the other facilitated Al-Qaeda's appearance in the province. Islamic Party leader Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i told Al-Jazeera television on February 7 that the tribesmen "are nobodies who do not have a presence or roots in Al-Anbar Governorate." He further claimed the tribesmen have "a shameful history," because they gave shelter to insurgent groups before 2007.

Al-Hayis claimed to RFE/RL that the Islamic Party was responsible for the destruction that took place in Al-Anbar since 2003. He maintained that the dispute between the council's tribes and the Islamic Party began when the tribes took on Al-Qaeda last year. When this happened, he alleged, the Islamic Party took to the airwaves and acted as if they were Osama bin Laden's lawyers.

Islamic Party member Umar Abd al-Sattar told RFE/RL on February 8 that the salvation council is not a true salvation council. The council was closed or finished by a decision of Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah before Abu Rishah was assassinated in September, Abd al-Sattar contended. He said nothing is known of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council except that it is led by Hamid al-Hayis.

"And we know that behind this council are many political sides interfering, [both] inside and outside the governorate. And we'd like from these political sides to announce themselves officially, rather than allowing people like [al-Hayis] to talk like this," Abd al-Sattar said. He described the dispute as politically based, adding, "But honestly after these remarks by al-Hayis, we are forced to take legal action against him." The party has filed lawsuits against al-Hayis in Al-Anbar and Baghdad, he said.

Regarding the current structure of the governorate council, Abd al-Sattar said: "The government knows, and the parliament knows, and the politicians know that this council was elected according to the constitution and reflects the will of the Iraqis who voted for the council. And now the problem is that other parts were not able to join the council, and they want to be a part of the political process. And they can have this in the coming [provincial] elections." He added: "I don't understand all this hate against the governorate council and against the [Islamic] Party, and I think that these [interfering] sides in a way have some connections inside the government or outside the government."

When asked to explicitly identify the parties he believed are interfering in the issue, Abd al-Sattar declined, but contended that "everyone knows who those parties are." He further claimed that the interfering parties are trying to usurp power and act as the "alternative to the Islamic Party" throughout Iraq. As their attempts are failing, he said, they have resorted to mudslinging and wild accusations against the party. Abd al-Sattar maintained, as have other members of the Islamic Party in press interviews, that al-Hayis is uneducated and does not possess any professional qualifications.

Abd al-Sattar maintained that the Islamic Party achieved many good things in recent years, and he theorized that rival Sunni groups are now trying to claim those achievements for themselves and discredit the Islamic Party, which he says enjoys broad support among the Iraqi people. He said the political process is open for all and there is room for broad participation. The Islamic Party has never tried to portray itself as the only party representative of the Sunni Arab people, he said, and the ballot box should decide who represents the people.

Regarding al-Hayis's contention that the Islamic Party brought Al-Qaeda to Al-Anbar, he said: "First of all, al-Hayis is not a sheikh [tribal leader]. Not everyone who is wearing a disdasha and iqal [traditional tribal dress] should be considered a sheikh." He said al-Hayis belongs to a tribe led by Hamid al-Turk, who is also a member of the Al-Anbar administrative institution.

He said the Islamic Party is the main threat to Al-Qaeda in the governorate. While the Islamic Party was fighting Al-Qaeda, al-Hayis and his comrades were sitting in their houses. When they realized that Al-Qaeda would be defeated, they came out and claimed the victory as their own. "So, when al-Hayis says he has proof that the Islamic Party supported Al-Qaeda in Al-Anbar, we respond by saying we have thousands of documents and pictures proving that we are the enemy of Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda is our enemy," Abd al-Sattar said. "We say that the person [al-Hayis] who is talking like this, is he a government official, like a president or a prime minister or a minister of defense or interior? Or is he even is a mayor or governor of a provincial council? Or is he even a tribal leader or a political party leader? This person who said that and accused the Islamic Party of having a connection with Al-Qaeda -- this declaration is clear proof that al-Hayis has the connection to Al-Qaeda and militias, and he is the head of them. Therefore, this is inciting terrorism."

Changed Landscape Requires Political Revision

Beneath the accusations and rhetoric from competing interests in Al-Anbar, one thing is clear: the changing security landscape requires political groups that came to power through the 2005 elections to accommodate the new reality, represented by tribal councils that boycotted the elections but have since voiced a desire to participate in government. Similar power-sharing disputes, though different in shape, have erupted in governorates across Iraq, from Diyala to Al-Qadisiyah, Babil, and Kirkuk.

While the Al-Anbar Salvation Council's threat of force against the Islamic Party is counterproductive, it's desire for a role in the governance of Al-Anbar needs to be understood. After all, one of Prime Minister al-Maliki's key goals is to forge national reconciliation.

Under the current governance construct, both in Baghdad and in the governorates, political and security power remain in the hands of a select group or sect that is hardly representative of the population under its control.

Under the draft governorates' law, provincial elections are slated to be held on October 1 (the elections should have been held last year). Those elections, if held in a free and fair environment, would likely rebalance the system. However, it remains unclear whether governorate elections could be organized and executed by the end of the year.

Moreover, the anticipation of an election does not appear enough to satisfy, at least in Al-Anbar, groups hungry for a say in local governance. Should Baghdad fail to respond to the emerging crisis, it could face a severe setback to the security gains of the past year.