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Iraq: The Fight for Control

Iraq: The Fight for Control

By Christopher Kuttruff
t r u t h o u t | Report

US-backed Iraqi forces launched attacks in Sadr City on Friday, sparking violence that has continued through Tuesday. Since the fighting began, more than 90 people have been killed.

The offensives made good on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's promises to increase pressure on Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In spite of Sadr's gestures to encourage stability in regions such as Basra, Sadr City and other government-opposition strongholds, Maliki has continued with forceful military action against the Shiite Cleric and his loyalists.

On Friday, the office of Moqtada al-Sadr reported a massive military presence of Iraqi tanks and US air support in Sadr City.

The fighting reportedly started when an Army patrol, aiding Iraqi forces to set up a checkpoint in the region, was confronted with roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire from nearby buildings.

The violence emerges in the wake of fierce division between Maliki and Sadr.

While Moqtada al-Sadr controls 30 of the 275 seats in the Iraqi Parliament and maintains substantial support in the south and in certain regions near the capital, Maliki threatened on last Monday to exclude Sadr from the pivotal upcoming provincial elections.

In an interview with CNN, Maliki claimed, "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."

Administration critics, however, emphasize the hypocrisy of singling out Sadr and the Mahdi Army.

Dr. Reidar Visser, expert on Iraqi/Shiite politics and editor of an Iraq-focused website, commented to Truthout about the issues of such a scenario: "The threat of a ban is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, many of the parties that have signed up to it maintain militias themselves. Who will police the ban on militias in the context of elections? Furthermore, there are many ways to circumvent it. Those Sadrists who chose to participate back in 2005 did not run on lists called 'the Sadrists' but rather invented new names for local lists. They may choose to do so again. The bottom line is that the Sadrists were among the main forces who demanded early provincial elections and actually helped the US government achieve one of its benchmarks, whereas Washington's allies (the Kurds and Hakim) fiercely resisted the idea of having elections. It would be deeply ironic if the Sadrists should end up not participating due to obstructionism by parties who did not want elections and who continue to maintain militias despite the so-called 'ban.'"

Dr. Visser refers to the relationship of Maliki's Dawa party with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) which maintains a heavily armed paramilitary group - the Badr Organization (formerly known as the Badr Corps.)

The Badr Organization militia, comprised of 10,000 or more members, has attracted significantly less attention than the Mahdi Army, but enjoys substantial political influence through the SIIC.

The Badr Organization has become notorious for its alleged attacks on Sunnis and aggravation of relations with other Shiite factions (chiefly Sadr's Mahdi Army.)

Maliki's efforts to isolate Sadr from the political process could perhaps prove most devastating to stability. In response to Maliki's statements earlier last week, Sadr threatened on Tuesday, April 8, to end the cease-fire that has been crucial to the recent decline in violence across Iraq.

Gen. David Petraeus, in his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee early last week, stressed the importance of Sadr's order: "The recent flare-up in Basra, southern Iraq and Baghdad underscored the importance of the cease-fire declared my Moqtada al-Sadr last fall, another factor in the overall reduction in violence."

Recently, Maliki has waged offensives in the oil-rich port city of Basra in southern Iraq, where Sadr maintains significant control, influence and popularity.

The incursion, which caused hundreds of deaths, has come under increasing scrutiny. Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite politics and a professor at Tufts University, remarked to The Wall Street Journal that "President Bush was right that Basra marked a defining moment for Iraq, but not in the way that he intended.... This is the birth of Sadrist power."

Professor Nasr was referring to President Bush's response to the recent clashes in Basra. Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, referred to Maliki's incursion as "a bold decision ... [one that] we have been wanting the Iraqis [to make]."

Other US officials, however, have assumed a different position. Prime Minister Maliki ignored US advice to pursue a more controlled and cautionary approach to the situation in Basra.

General Petraeus noted that US and Iraqi officers had created a more precise plan to restore order in Basra over a duration of several months. After this plan was unveiled on March 21, Iraq's national security adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, told Petraeus that the plan did not seek a resolution quickly enough.

Petraeus stated to reporters: "So we went over and met with him and he laid out what he had directed, and it was the deployment of two brigades and these high-end units that I talked about.... So then on Monday, [Maliki] went down there and all of a sudden they were in combat."

The rapidity of Maliki's approach has perplexed many experts, since Sadr initially had called for his loyalists to embrace nonviolent measures to protest the actions of the Maliki government and US "occupying forces."

The Shiite cleric renewed his cease-fire, originally proclaimed in August of 2007, in late February of this year.

Even responding to the murder of a senior aide, Sayyed Riyadh al-Nuri, Sadr, through his spokesman, urged his followers to be calm and "not to be dragged into others' plots."

Dr. Visser, author of "Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq," noted to Truthout the historical significance of Maliki's actions to isolate al-Sadr: "It is clear that the Sadrists represent a very substantial segment of Iraqi society, with bastions of support in populous ghetto areas like Sadr City in Baghdad and Hayaniyya in Basra. Any attempt to marginalize them completely would be foolhardy in the extreme. Potentially, it might well lead to conditions of social protest like those that brought down the monarchy back in 1958."

Despite Sadr's measured responses to recent developments and the potential consequences of a collapsing cease-fire agreement, Nouri al-Maliki persists with his reach for greater control, most recently in Sadr City.


Christopher Kuttruff is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.

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