News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIraq rebel cleric reins in militia; motives at issue

Iraq rebel cleric reins in militia; motives at issue


New York Times: Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric and founder of the Mahdi Army militia, discovered recently that two of his commanders had created DVDs of their men killing Sunnis in Baghdad. Documents suggested that they had received money from Iran. The New York Times

Published: February 25, 2007

BAGHDAD, Feb. 24 — Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric and founder of the Mahdi Army militia, discovered recently that two of his commanders had created DVDs of their men killing Sunnis in Baghdad. Documents suggested that they had received money from Iran.

So he suspended them and stripped them of power, said two Mahdi leaders in Sadr City, the heart of Mr. Sadr’s support here in the capital.

But did he do so as part of his cooperation with the new security plan for Baghdad, which aims to quell the sectarian violence tormenting the city? Because his men had been disloyal, taking orders from Iran, whose support he values but whose control he fights? Or was it just for show — the act of an image-conscious leader who grasped the risk of graphic videos and wanted to stave off direct American action against him?

Mr. Sadr has been the great destabilizer in Iraq since 2003, wielding power on the streets and in the ruling Shiite bloc, thwarting the Americans and playing out at least a temporary alliance with Iran.

With the new security plan for Iraq under way, every question about Mr. Sadr’s motives touches on a different facet of Iraq’s complicated struggle.

He now finds himself under pressure from several sources. One is his popular Shiite base, which demands protection from devastating Sunni attacks. Another is Iran, with which he has had long but difficult ties. Then there are renegade factions of his own militia that resent his move into the political mainstream.

Finally, the Americans, who have accused Iran of supplying Shiite militias, including Mr. Sadr’s, with an especially deadly roadside bomb known as an explosively formed projectile, or E.F.P, which has killed an increasing number of American soldiers.

It is not clear whether the Americans will move directly against him. The United States has demanded that the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki act forcefully against the Mahdi Army; Mr. Maliki, however, owes much of his political strength in the ruling Shiite coalition to Mr. Sadr’s backing.

For now, American and Iraqi officials say Mr. Sadr seems to be cooperating with the effort to pacify Baghdad, ordering his men not to fight even as American armored vehicles roll into Mahdi strongholds in eastern Baghdad. He seems to be cleaning house of fighters who could taint him by association with Iran or with death squad killings. His aides say he has called for a sectarian truce. “Moktada al-Sadr said to protect your clerics, protect your shrines and cooperate with the government,” said Hazim al-Araji, head of the Sadr office in western Baghdad. “So no actions have been taken.”

In perhaps his boldest move yet, Mr. Sadr has assisted the joint Iraqi-American campaign against parts of his militia, signaling whom to arrest and telling others to flee, said two Mahdi commanders and a Shiite politician in Baghdad. On his own, they said, Mr. Sadr has “frozen” more than 40 commanders, including about 20 with links to Iran.

The moves are part of an organizational overhaul, the Sadr aides said. Though Mr. Sadr’s whereabouts are unknown — the Americans say he is in Iran, which his aides and Iran dispute — a new Mahdi general for all of Baghdad has been appointed for the first time, they said. Mr. Sadr has also selected new commanders for east and west Baghdad.

Some of the Sadr aides and commanders who described Mr. Sadr’s recent moves during separate interviews in Najaf and Baghdad refused to give their names, saying they had not been authorized to speak and feared reprisals from current or former members of the militia.

They said the cleric allowed the arrests of members of his own militia, or suspended them himself, because evidence showed that they had not obeyed his orders and because he wanted to show Iran, American officials and his militia that he was a strong leader who must be respected and feared.

“He wants to prove to the people that he has full control of his militia,” said a 47-year-old Mahdi commander from Sadr City who referred to himself as Jabar Abdul al-Hahdi. “He wants to show he’s in charge.”

Mr. Sadr’s conflicted relationship with Iran mirrors Iraq’s. Each country’s majority Shiites revere the other’s clerics and visit the other’s religious shrines. But they speak different languages, are dominated by different ethnic groups, and fought each other in a long war in the 1980s.

Mr. Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, became one of Iraq’s most popular Shiite clerics largely because he set himself up as the rebel alternative to Iran’s religious leadership, focusing on poor, oppressed Iraqis, not just theological debate. His mix of social and religious resistance led Saddam Hussein to order his assassination in 1999.

Moktada al-Sadr rose to prominence after the American invasion in 2003 with anti-American speeches and echoes of his father’s populism. But he was young, not yet 30, and less educated than his clerical rivals. So even as he railed against Iranian meddling, he sought money and support from Iran’s top clerics, meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader, in June 2003. It was a dramatic reversal from family tradition.

Less than a year later, he led a revolt against American troops in Najaf, and again Iran played the role of patron. On the 11th day of the revolt, with Mr. Sadr under siege, an Iranian delegation arrived in Iraq to mediate. The Iranians were joined by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, who called for Shiite unity and calm.

Mr. Sadr eventually agreed to stop fighting and join the political process. The Americans let him.

His popularity rose with the speed of a pop star’s, and the Mahdi Army grew like a fan club, from a few hundred young men to thousands — including some who proved hard to control.

Since then, according to some Shiite officials, Iran has funneled support to his organization. What it receives, how much and how consistently, remain a mystery, but some Shiite leaders say Mr. Sadr collects less from Iran than does a rival Shiite party: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was founded in Iran by Iraqi exiles in 1984.

Iran generally supports many groups simultaneously, including some Sunni ones, so that it can benefit from any eventuality, said Sami al-Askari, a Shiite member of Parliament who works closely with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

“Iran intervenes in many ways, with many methods,” Mr. Askari said.

In the case of the Mahdi Army, he said, Iran has recognized its diffuse nature, sprinkling support at high and low levels. Some support comes through ties to Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon that also receives Iranian support. Beirut now has a Sadr office, and Mahdi commanders say they have been sending fighters to Hezbollah at least since last summer, when Hezbollah battled Israel.

Iran also provides institutional assistance to Iraq, mainly to the Health Ministry, which is run by Mr. Sadr’s political bloc. Three days after bombs killed more than 140 people in Sadr City last fall, for example, 50 Iraqi ambulances carried some of the wounded to the Iranian border. They were transferred to Iranian ambulances and taken to Iranian hospitals, with much of the cost covered by organizations in Iran.

Qasim Allawi, a spokesman for the Health Ministry who described the process, said another 25 wounded men and women from the recent Sadriya market bombing in Baghdad were to head to Iran any day.

Iran’s more potent forms of aid are direct — and some goes not to Mr. Sadr, but to underlings.

“Sometimes the aid comes for the leadership, and they get to decide where it goes,” Mr. Askari said. “Sometimes it goes to the local leadership, and this encourages them to rebel.”

“Iran puts Moktada al-Sadr between two pressing sides,” he said. “On one hand, they are helping him and they have the ability to take that away. At the same time, they’re undermining him by helping people below him.”

According to Sadr aides and Mahdi commanders, Mr. Sadr’s recent purges aim to put Iran on notice that he is in charge and independent. They said he also wanted to remind members of his militia that he would use every available tool, including Iraqi and American troops, to maintain control of the militia, the source of any political power he wields.

The goal is a top-down, tightly managed operation.

“We’re going to end the decentralized system that we had before,” said one of the aides in Najaf.

If Mr. Sadr consolidates power over his unruly militia, he could be held more responsible for the actions of its members. Until now, American and Iraqi efforts against the Mahdi Army have focused on so-called rogue elements.

The 30 members of Parliament associated with the Sadr bloc have not been arrested, keeping Mr. Sadr’s legitimate influence intact. At the same time, American, Iraqi and British officials are engaged in classified negotiations with his envoys over how to address the Mahdi Army and its Sadr City stronghold, the neighborhood named for Mr. Sadr’s father.

When asked about the talks, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top military spokesman in Iraq, said the meetings represented a reasonable and appropriate attempt to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.

“Anytime you can find a political solution instead of a military solution,” he said, “it’s always better.”

But can Mr. Sadr deliver what the Americans want? Are his efforts adequate? Some American military officers remain skeptical.

“You know what their intent is,” said Maj. Kevin Hosier, an intelligence officer with the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, as his unit prepared for sweeps through predominantly Shiite areas near Sadr City this month. “They want Baghdad. They want to make Baghdad a Shia city.”

Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a research organization, who wrote a thorough profile of Mr. Sadr last summer, said the impact of the Mahdi purges and command restructuring would likely be short-lived.

“He has been excommunicating some of his key commanders, that’s a fact, but he has just put them in the corner,” Mr. Harling said, relying on interviews with several Mahdi commanders cited in his July profile. “Many of them, after Sadr really accused them in the harshest terms, actually came back in the movement and carried on with their careers. All this is kind of temporary.”

According to Mr. Harling, Mr. Sadr has little choice but to trim at the edges of his organization. His hold on power remains tenuous, dependent on a loose association of clients all over the country who he knows could turn on him at any moment.

“He remains in a strong position as a leader only as long as he is useful to all these smaller leaders,” Mr. Harling said. “He rules by consensus.”

Vali Nasr, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of “The Shia Revival,” says Mr. Sadr should be viewed as a politician who was trying to preserve his power. Poor Shiites have made him an Iraqi celebrity, a national symbol whose bearded visage graces everything from wristwatches to alarm clocks and large posters. Above all else, he will be loyal to them, Mr. Nasr said.

“Since the Samarra bombing last year, Moktada has received a lot of pressure to be tougher on the Sunnis,” he said, referring to the explosion in the northern city of Samarra last February that destroyed one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines. “He’s found that the tougher he’s been, the more his popularity has gone up.”

In the long run, Mr. Nasr said, “he’s not very concerned with what the Americans think of him. What matters to him is what the Shiites think.”

Reporting was contributed by Hosham Hussein, Richard A. Oppel Jr., Ali Adeeb, Khalid al-Ansary and Wisam A. Habeeb, in Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times in Najaf.

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