A lose-lose game
Nuri Al-Maliki's bid to subdue Sadr's militia could spark a Shia-Shia civil war and increase Iran's influence in Iraq, writes Salah Hemeid
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Iraqis carry the dead bodies of their neighbours from the ruins of a house hit in a US air strike in Baghdad's Sadr City
Fierce clashes between the Shia militiamen of Al-Mahdi Army and US and Iraqi forces continued off and on in Baghdad's Sadr City and other southern towns this week, killing and wounding hundreds in the latest effort by Al-Maliki's government to take control over areas dominated by supporters of the maverick Shia leader Moqtada Al-Sadr. The clashes came despite a call by Al-Sadr on Friday for an end to fighting that unfolded following a nationwide crackdown by Iraqi security forces on strongholds of Al-Sadr's powerful militia few weeks ago.
The government's onslaught on Sadr City apparently aims at driving Al-Mahdi militia from their most powerful base of support in Baghdad after a successful campaign in Basra in April that forced fighters to leave Iraq's second largest city's streets. Initial reports suggested that US and Iraqi forces have advanced only into a small portion of the sprawling slum of three million people, as fighters resorted to hide-and-seek tactics trying to avoid US aircraft that have been shelling their hideouts.
Some 400 people, many of them civilians, have been killed in Sadr City since 25 March and Sadr's supporters accused the Iraqi army of atrocities. The Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera news network on Monday broadcast footage showing Iraqi soldiers torturing Sadrists after a crackdown in the southern town of Souq Al-Sheoukh and setting fire to a hideout where Sadrists were believed to have taken shelter. Iraq's Defence Ministry spokesman Mohamed Al-Askari dismissed the footage as fabrication though admitted a fight had taken place in the town between Iraqi soldiers and Sadrists.
Coupled with the assaults, the US troops began building a concrete wall in Sadr City last week in what they said was a bid to prevent rocket and mortar attacks on the heavily fortified Green Zone, seat of the Iraqi government and the American Embassy. The walls similar to those built around many of Baghdad's Sunni neighbourhoods cut Sadr City off from the rest of the capital and angered residents of the impoverished Shia- dominated township.
The escalation has indicated a failure of the political effort to end the weeks-long military confrontations that have so far deepened the rift in the Shia ruling coalition and now threaten the violence-torn country with a Shia civil war and cast Iraq into a deeper and more lasting political crisis.
Al-Maliki pledged to expand his crackdown on the Sadr militias unless they lay down their arms. In an interview aired by Al-Arabiya television, Al-Maliki set four conditions for ending the military assaults: hand in all heavy and medium weapons, stop meddling in the government's work, halt intimidation of police and army soldiers and hand in those wanted by police.
Al-Sadr, who threatened on 19 April to launch an all-out war against the US forces unless attacks on his militiamen came to a halt, rejected the conditions and accused Al-Maliki of wanting to resolve the problem by force instead of dialogue. His spokesman Salah Al-Obeidi described Al-Maliki's conditions as "illogical " and warned the government against continuing its assaults and targeting the Sadrists.
About 50 leaders representing several political groups took to Sadr City streets to protest the US- led siege of the township. They demanded the government immediately suspend military activity in the city, supply basic services to residents and prioritise peaceful solutions to military conflicts. Notably, representatives from the Supreme Islamic Council and Daawa did not take part in the protests.
The fighting has revealed the complexities of Iraqi politics and its regional geopolitical dimensions. On the one hand, it reflects the fragile situation in Iraq and the continuous power struggle -- this time within the Shia community and its ruling alliance. On the other, it signals a deeper, though subtle, Iranian involvement in inter-Shia politics that allows Tehran, already a major player in Iraq, to take advantage of Iraq's deepening political turmoil.
At issue are the coming provincial elections scheduled in October which both the Iraqi government and the American administration eye as vital in stabilising the war-wrecked nation. Both fear that Al-Sadr's supporters will fare better than the US-favoured Islamic Supreme Council and Al-Maliki's Daawa Party, thus excluding them from most of the southern provinces. During the elections in 2005, Al-Sadrists did not vote in most southern provinces, so despite having grassroots support they were not represented in local governments.
Obviously, the council, which stands firmly behind Al-Maliki's military manoeurvres, wants to weaken the Sadrists and make it more difficult for them to win many seats. In turn, that will put the council in a better political position to retain power, especially control of the police and army. Though it is not clear how Daawa will benefit from empowering the council, Al-Maliki hopes that he can retain power by consolidating his alliance with the council.
Also, Al-Maliki wants the fighting to send a strong message to the Sunni groups that he is determined to fight the Shia militias the same way he has been doing with Sunni armed groups and ward off accusations of sectarianism. Realising the dramatic shift in the political landscape, the main Sunni groups, which have been boycotting Al-Maliki's cabinet, have welcomed his invitation to send new ministers instead of those who walked out last year in protest of Shia domination of the government and the security forces. Again Al-Maliki expects that this will improve his relations with the Sunnis and establish himself as a national and non- sectarian leader rather than a Shia prime minister.
As for Iran, which has publicly opposed the Shia-Shia fighting, it is expected to increase its influence in Iraq regardless of who eventually wins in this new round of Iraqi violence. The Iranian agenda in Iraq is more complex than many would have thought and its strategy is based on fuelling threats to the American war effort in Iraq, while still posing itself as a power broker and a force which can help in stabilising the strife-wracked nation.
That Iranian double game perhaps was behind the Iraqi government publicly for the first time accusing Tehran of meddling in Iraq's affairs. On Sunday an Iraqi military commander claimed a clear Iranian role in the latest spiral of violence. Iraqi army spokesman Major General Qassim Atta told a news conference that 712 rockets and mortars had been fired in Baghdad in recent weeks, and claimed most of them were Iranian-made. He also said that Iraqi police have also seized some documents and identified some people who were trained in Iran, giving credit to repeated American accusations of Iran's growing and lethal interference in Iraq.
With this all-out attempt to establish himself as a strong national leader, Al-Maliki has set himself a daunting task: to impose law and order and restore respect to the state's apparatus. By any reckoning, Al-Maliki's determination to subdue the Sadrists proves that he is a heavy hitter, the question now is whether he is also strong enough to challenge Iran's ambitions in Iraq, which many believe are destabilising.