Al-Sadr's Militia 'Won't Fight Government'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.
Al-Sadr Threatens Government With 'Open War'
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.
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.
U.S. To Push For Greater Arab Engagement At Neighbors' Conference
The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, told reporters in Washington on April 10 that both he and the State Department's top counterterrorism official, retired General Dell Dailey, have pressed Arab states in recent months to increase their diplomatic presence in Iraq and to help stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq.
Other senior diplomats, as well as military and intelligence officers, have visited more than a dozen Middle Eastern countries in an effort to cut the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, Petraeus said. Dailey told "The Washington Post" on April 10 that he had visited Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt between November and February. Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, met again with Saudi officials on April 14 and 15 to press the issue.
On April 22, foreign ministers from Iraq's neighboring states, along with Egypt and Bahrain, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and other Group of Eight (G8) major industrialized states are set to meet in Kuwait to discuss the security situation in Iraq.
The meeting comes on the heels of a two-day gathering on security cooperation held last week in Damascus. That meeting was attended by Iraq's six neighboring states as well as representatives from Egypt, Bahrain, the Arab League, the UN, the permanent members of the Security Council, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the European Union, and the G8.
The issue of foreign fighters in Iraq weighed heavily on that meeting, and Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi stressed what he suggested was a destructive role that Iran has played in Iraq in recent months.
Tensions With Tehran
Arabic press reports on the Damascus conference indicated that an argument broke out during a closed-door meeting between Iraqi and Iranian representatives at the summit. Iraqi officials who attended the meeting told the pan-Arabic daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the Iraqis talked openly about the flow of Iranian weapons into Iraq and about operations to fund armed groups.
Officials have said in recent days that the extent of Iranian interference in Iraq became more apparent during the recent security operations against militants in Al-Basrah. Iranian-made weapons have flooded the city, and officials say "regional quarters" -- shorthand for Iran and possibly Syria -- are funding militias such as Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The Iranians have countered by claiming in interviews that they have played a constructive role in Iraqi security.
The U.S. charge d'affaires in Damascus, Michael Corbin, noted the destructive role of neighboring states in a statement at the Damascus conference. "Terrorist facilitation networks operating throughout the region continue to be a significant threat to the stability of Iraq and, by extension, the entire region," Corgin said. "The influx of foreign-made weapons used by and seized from criminal militia elements involved in fighting Iraqi security forces, which was thrown into stark relief during the recent flare-up of violence in Basrah, the southern provinces, and Baghdad, is another serious threat which this group should address."
The conference reportedly endorsed 13 recommendations that will be forwarded to the foreign ministers' meeting in Kuwait. The recommendations were not made public, but at least one Arabic daily, "Al-Hayat," claimed to have seen them. Perhaps the most notable recommendation reported by the London-based paper is the affirmation that border security is the "joint responsibility" of all. Iraq's neighbors had previously argued that Iraq should bear the weight of responsibility for controlling its borders. Another key recommendation "emphasized the need to take measures to prevent the use of the territories of Iraq or of any of Iraq's neighboring countries for training purposes or orchestrating acts of terror against other countries or their nationals, and to solve such problems through diplomatic means," according to "Al-Hayat."
The recommendations also stressed the need to follow up on commitments made by neighboring states at previous meetings. Delegates in Damascus pledged to follow up on pledges made at the November security meeting in Kuwait and to "quickly name the liaison officers [on border security] who have not yet been named, to exchange information, and to hold another meeting on the sidelines of the [upcoming] interior ministers' meeting in Amman" in October. The point demonstrates the snail's pace at which recommendations are carried out, if they are carried out at all.
Iraq As One Of 'Them'?
While it is difficult to expect that the April 22 meeting will result in any concrete commitments by Iraq's neighbors, it is clear that neighboring Arab states have become more concerned about Iranian encroachment over the past year. The question is whether they are concerned enough to intervene in the case of Iraq.
Moreover, Arab states share key concerns over Iraq that have yet to be addressed. First and foremost is the Iraqi government's commitment (or lack thereof, as Arab states see it) to a pan-Arab vision and ideology. Since it came to power in 2005, the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government has been seen as an Iranian-backed regime that cared little for the preservation of Arab traditions and culture.
The reason for this is twofold. First, Iraq's ruling Shi'ite parties were closely tied to Iran and, in some cases, were funded by Iran before the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Second, the Sunni Arab-majority neighboring states have always had trouble viewing Shi'a -- whether in Iraq or in their own states -- as one of their own. The fact that Shi'a helped unseat Hussein and then pushed the Sunnis from power following Hussein's fall was a disturbing turn of events for Arab leaders, many of whom fear a similar fate -- even though most other Arab states do not have a sizable Shi'ite population. The fact that Kurds are arguably the second-most-powerful group in Iraq today is also not lost on Iraq's Arab neighbors.
Although there was little sympathy for Hussein among regional Arab leaders, the impact of regime change in Iraq, and the displacement of Sunni Arabs from power, significantly impacted Arab leaders. Moreover, it profoundly impacted the psyche of the Sunni Arab world in terms of identity and honor in ways that will take years to understand. If Arab regional leaders engage in Iraq at a time when U.S. forces remain on the ground there, they will face severe criticism at home, which will largely be interpreted as contributing to the occupation of Iraq.
The fact that Iraqi leaders have made little progress in forging national reconciliation only compounds the problem. Last week's decision by Sunni Arab parties to end their boycott and return to government may help assuage some of the neighbors' concerns, but they are likely to want to see more progress in this area before they fully commit to reengaging with Iraq, particularly on the diplomatic level.
There is no doubt that Iran's encroachment in the region is a troubling development for Arab states. In theory, it should prompt them to commit to greater security cooperation to push Iran back. Again, the question comes down to how convinced Arab states are that Iraq is with them and not Iran, and how committed they are to putting words to action.