The decision made by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to halt
his Mahdi Army�s
attacks on occupation forces and Iraqi security is likely to be considered the
single most promising breakthrough for the US military in Iraq. Although the
move comes ahead of several reports to be presented to the US Congress later
this month, the decision was ultimately an outcome of a long-brewing intrasectarian
conflict between Shiite Iraqis, which will further complicate the devastating
American failure in Iraq.
decision followed the widespread clashes at Karbala on August 26, during one of
the holiest Shiite festivals. Despite various accusations of outside
involvement, the clashes were apparently Shiite through and through, involving
militant members of the Badr Brigade of the Islamic Supreme Council (lead by
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a duel ally of the US and Iran) and al-Sadr�s Mahdi Army.
Both of these groups are Shiite, but they differ
significantly in terms of their loyalty to Iran: al-Sadr, although backed by
Iran, often invokes an Iraqi national sentiment, while the Badr Brigade of the
Supreme Council is unabashedly pro-Iran. While the latter has been heavily
involved both in the sectarian killings and the massacres of (mostly Sunni)
civilians, it coordinates most of its work with the US military, and is, in
fact, heavily represented in the Iraqi army, police and intelligence. Yet, it
is the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council that is affiliated with the
Shiite high authority Ali al-Sistani, and both hold unquestionable allegiance
to Iran. The US also claims to fight Iran�s agents in Iraq (who are blamed for the development of most
destructive types of guerrilla warfare tactics) and yet Iran plays an
uncontested role in determining the overall policies of the ruling Shiite
parties in Iraq, who are willing collaborators with the US military.
recent decision was, predictably, welcomed by the Americans, who are likely to
take any opportunity to prove the successes of their most recent operations.
Top official Gen. David Petraeus has already boasted about the troop surge
leading to a reduction in sectarian fighting. Statistics, however, directly
contradict such claims. Figures from the Associated Press show that the month
of August registered the second highest civilian death toll in Iraq -- 1,809
civilians -- since the US invasion of March 2003. The sharp rise is largely
attributed to the quadruple suicide bombings on August 14, near the Syrian
border, which killed 520 people.
The significance of that incident -- aside from its
devastating death toll -- is of less consequence than the inner Shiite
fighting, considering that the targeted group is a small minority that played
next to no part in the raging conflict. However, it will most likely be
underlined further by the US to detract from the fact that their once reliable
allies in Iraq are now engaged in a perplexing fight over control of the
southern part of the country, where most of the oil wealth is concentrated.
Southern Iraq is also important to groups vying for power because the city of
Basra directly borders Iran, the main ally for Iraqi Shiites and their major
source of political validation, and Najaf and Karbala, two of the holiest
cities for Shiites around the world are located in the south (the recent
clashes in Karbala were about controlling these shrines). With the British
vacating their positions in Basra, Shiite groups, who had hitherto displayed a
degree of unity in their fight against Sunnis, are now increasingly likely to
lock horns; those who control the south seem set to emerge as the future power
brokers of the country.
Although capable of inflicting widespread damage, al-Sadr�s chances of becoming this
power broker are slim. For one, his Shiite rivals receive greater backing from
Iran, which has displayed a largely Machiavellian attitude towards the
situation in Iraq, choosing never to bid on the underdog. The advent of the
Americans has also worsened the position of the Sadrists as they became largely
excluded from all government institutions. The new Iraqi hierarchy favored the
followers of al-Hakim, who apparently represented a more dominant and perhaps
more trustworthy (from an American point of view) branch of Shiites.
However, despite his seemingly erroneous strategies and
media depictions as a �radical,� al-Sadr has actually
adopted a very careful balancing act. He has continued to appeal to his Shiite
followers in a way that sets him apart from al-Sistani, while simultaneously
maintaining good relations with al-Sistani and Iran. He has even occasionally
appeared sympathetic to the plight of the Sunnis.
Yet, his relative political shrewdness could hardly bridge
the gap between the various Shiite groups, which remains essentially
ideological and an extension of the theological contention between the Hawza
followers of al-Sistani and the followers of Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada�s father. The divide between
the two religious Shiite schools is as real as ever and the new economic woes
and power struggles are likely to bring back to the fore -- and further fuel -- these
differences. With Badr Brigade claiming 70,000 strong militiaman and al-Mahdi
counting over 50,000, both groups are overwhelmed with fear and mistrust; under
these circumstances, the prospect of co-existence seems bleak.
We know very little of why al-Sadr decided to send the
al-Mahdi army into hibernation. He claims that his militias are being infiltrated
by Iran, but this is unconvincing given that al-Sadr uses Iran as a personal
escape whenever his safety is threatened at home. The US military continues to
crack down on his followers, and the Iraqi military, mostly controlled by his
rivals, are carrying mass arrests in al-Sadr City and elsewhere. A lenient
al-Sadr may well inspire revolt amongst his followers and send the inner Shiite
fight on an early and destructive path, or he might find himself compelled to
resume the fight on behalf of his own group. Both scenarios would be bad news
for the Americans, who would be forced to watch an escalating Shiite power
struggle in a country they supposedly control.Ramzy
Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has
been published in numerous newspapers and journals worldwide, including the
Washington Post, Japan Times, Al Ahram Weekly and Lemonde Diplomatique. His
latest book is The
Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People�s Struggle (Pluto Press, London). Read more about him on his website: ramzybaroud.net.