News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqCrackdown on militias may add to instability in Iraq

Crackdown on militias may add to instability in Iraq


New York Times: A crackdown on the Mahdi Army militia is creating potentially destabilizing political and military tensions in Iraq, pitting a stronger government alliance against the force that has won past showdowns: the street power wielded by the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr. The New York Times

Published: April 8, 2008

BAGHDAD — A crackdown on the Mahdi Army militia is creating potentially destabilizing political and military tensions in Iraq, pitting a stronger government alliance against the force that has won past showdowns: the street power wielded by the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s military operations against the Mahdi Army that Mr. Sadr leads have at least temporarily pacified Sunni political leaders, who had long called on Mr. Maliki to fight Shiite militias with the same vigor that his forces use against Sunni insurgents.

And both the Kurds and some of Mr. Maliki’s Shiite political rivals, who also resent Mr. Sadr’s rising power, have been driven closer to Mr. Maliki. This may give him more traction to pass laws and broker deals.

But the badly coordinated push into Basra has unleashed a new barrage of attacks on American and Iraqi forces and has led to open fighting between Shiite militias.

Figures compiled by the American military showed that attacks specifically on military targets in Baghdad more than tripled in March, one of many indications that violence has begun to rise again after months of gains in the wake of an American troop increase. Overall attacks on Baghdad more than doubled, to 631 in March from 239 in February, reflecting new strikes against the Green Zone, the fortified headquarters for Iraqi and American officials, as well as renewed fighting in Sadr City between the Mahdi Army and American and Iraqi forces.

The statistics threaten to reignite public concern about the cost of the war, just as the top American military commander and the senior American diplomat in Iraq testify before Congress on Tuesday.

A cease-fire Mr. Sadr declared last summer helped in the decline in attacks, and violence could flare even more sharply if the sporadic fighting leads to a complete abandonment of that cease-fire.

The crackdown on the Mahdi Army has also eroded Mr. Maliki’s credibility with a large segment of the public that fears Mr. Sadr’s militia but also sees him as a legitimate champion of their interests. In Iraq, where perceived power is a key to real authority, Iraqis saw the Mahdi Army stopping Mr. Maliki’s Basra assault cold, then melting away when Mr. Sadr ordered them to lay down their arms.

Reflecting that calculus of power on the streets, Amal Mosa, a 28-year-old computer systems worker in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad, said, “I think Maliki and America are more powerful than JAM, but Maliki alone would be smashed by it,” referring to the Mahdi Army by its Arabic acronym.

As Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander here, prepare to give their latest assessment to Congress, interviews with dozens of Iraqi politicians, government leaders, analysts and ordinary citizens clearly indicate that Mr. Maliki’s assault on the Mahdi Army has come with significant political consequences for the American enterprise in Iraq.

Although Mr. Maliki’s military operation in Basra foundered against Mahdi resistance and the Green Zone has been pounded with rockets fired from around the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, the prime minister has been freshly embraced by several Shiite, Kurdish and even Sunni blocs who at times seemed to support him mainly because there was no obvious alternative.

Some senior Iraqi officials see those developments as welcome signs of political reconciliation.

“My view is that what happened could well be a turning point in the political alignments of Iraq,” said Barham Salih, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, who is a Kurd, speaking of Mr. Maliki’s efforts to strike against the Mahdi Army. “What he did in taking on his own constituents can give him the credentials to be a national leader rather than the leader of a Shia sect.”

But for many Iraqis, in the past few weeks Mr. Maliki has cemented his reputation as a tool of the Americans.

The strong political support for Mr. Maliki follows extensive American lobbying with Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish politicians. In fact, after Mr. Maliki became mired in Basra, Mr. Crocker said, he emerged from talks with Iraqi politicians with the sense that they had to back the prime minister, “whatever they may have thought about the way the government got into this.”

Sheik Salman Lafraiji, who heads the office of Mr. Sadr’s supporters in eastern Baghdad, sat recently beside huge vats of soup and rice being doled out to poor Sadr City residents, one of many social services run by Mr. Sadr’s party that have won the loyalty of many poor or working-class Shiites. He argued that since the American military failed to destroy the Mahdi Army in Najaf and Sadr City during insurrections in 2004, the Americans were now using Mr. Maliki as a proxy.

“What Maliki is doing is pursuing the Americans’ interests in Iraq, because they weren’t able to get rid of the Sadrists in 2004,” he said.

As military clashes continued in Mr. Sadr’s eastern Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, the political maneuvering continued.

On Monday, Mr. Maliki said Mr. Sadr’s political movement would be banned from the coming provincial elections unless he disbanded its armed wing.

“They no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mahdi Army,” he told CNN. Until now Mr. Maliki has spoken generally about focusing on criminals, gangs and smugglers instead of singling out the Mahdi Army by name.

Mr. Sadr’s aides swiftly countered by saying he would refer the issue to Shiite religious authorities, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and senior clergy members in Iran.

“If they order the Mahdi Army to disband, Moktada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders,” one Sadr aide, Hassan Zargani, told Reuters.

Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group said that both Mr. Maliki’s threat to ban Sadrists from provincial elections and Mr. Sadr’s reply were “smart politics,” and that the prime minister’s threat was evidence that he was now relying on political stratagems to neutralize the Sadrists, instead of what he called the military “fiasco” of his Basra adventure.

“The Sadrists are not going to agree to disband the Mahdi Army; that would be suicidal,” said Mr. Hiltermann, speaking from Istanbul. “But it presents Sadr with a dilemma. If they say they won’t disband, then they could be disenfranchised, which is not in their interests because they really want these elections. Or they could turn to violence, in which case Maliki and his allies could call off the elections, which many of them don’t want anyway.”

Some politicians questioned whether Mr. Maliki’s government even had the legal authority — or military muscle — to enforce such a decision.

“It is not Maliki’s job to decide this: it is Parliament’s job,” said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of Parliament. “When you make elections, you have to include Sadr. If you don’t, the Mahdi Army will cause violence. The principles of disarming his militia are good, but how to implement it? That is not an easy job.”

A truer gauge of the two sides’ real power may come Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the day United States troops captured the Iraqi capital, when Mr. Sadr has called for a million of his followers to march through the streets of Baghdad to protest the continuing presence of American forces in Iraq.

A senior Iraqi official said the prime minister had told the Sadrists that he would permit a peaceful demonstration as long as it remained inside Sadr City, which is cordoned off by layers of Iraqi and American troops.

While Mr. Maliki insists that the Basra military operation in March was intended to reimpose the rule of law in a city crippled by gangsters and militias, opponents accuse him of merely trying to weaken the Sadrists ahead of provincial elections scheduled for October, in which Mr. Maliki’s main allies, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Kurds, stand to lose many seats.

Opinion appears to have divided into two camps: the Sadr followers, who accuse Mr. Maliki of being a tool of American policy, and anti-Sadrists, who say they are sick of extortion and gunmen.

One unexpected bonus for Mr. Maliki is that the Sadrists appear to have been dismayed by the political establishment’s decision, at least in public, to back him.

“We were astonished at the political blocs’ stance in supporting Maliki’s government,” said Hassan al-Rubaie, a Sadrist lawmaker.

Reporting was contributed by Michael R. Gordon, Michael Kamber, Ahmad Fadam, Muhammed al-Obaidi, Istabrak Muthanna and Karim al-Hilmi from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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