Military victory, political defeat
Despite the Iraqi government's crackdown on militiamen in Al-Amarah, Al-Sadr might turn out to be the winner, writes Saif Nasrawi
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This video frame grab image shows a boy walking among debris after a car bomb tore through a market in Baghdad. An estimated 63 people were killed and hundreds were injured; American soldiers walk in front of US army vehicles in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Amarah ahead of a planned offensive against militia groups in the Shia stronghold
The movement of Moqtada Al-Sadr has fine-tuned its multifaceted military and political strategy to survive the most recent US-backed Iraqi military assault on its last stronghold in the southern city of Al-Amarah.
Avoiding direct confrontation, neutralising the rogue elements within the ranks of his Mahdi Army militia, adopting a rather pacifist discourse and forging a wider political alliance with different Iraqi opposition groups are some of Al-Sadr's smart tactical manoeuvres to repel the new "law imposing operation" in Al-Amarah, the oil-rich capital of Maysan province.
Followers of Al-Sadr vowed Monday that they won't resist a military crackdown in Amarah, 320km southeast of Baghdad, as long as government troops keep away from arbitrary arrest or committing other violations.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has given "outlaws" and "criminals" in Al-Amarah until Wednesday to surrender their weapons and renounce violence or face harsh measures. The show of force in the southern city of nearly 450,000 people follows similar efforts in the Shia areas of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City and the northern Sunni insurgent bastion of Mosul.
Iraqi troops tightened their grip on the peripheries of Al-Amarah Tuesday two days before the beginning of major operations in the impoverished city that is reputed to be a centre for smuggling arms from neighbouring Iran.
"Our military forces have completed their deployment to ensure control of the whole city," the Iraqi army's deputy chief of staff, Nasir Al-Abadi, said. Adel Mhodir, the Sadrist governor of Maysan province said local officials have expressed their support for the operation but warned against "human rights violations during the raids or cases of arrests without warrants." "There is agreement among all the parties and blocs, including Al-Sadr's office, on the necessity of imposing the law, yet the rights of the citizens should be preserved while this operation is implemented," Mhodir added in a statement on the provincial government's website.
A senior Iraqi official said that the government doesn't expect any serious fighting in the city because the Mahdi Army militiamen are too weak to fight back. "Our assessment so far is that the demilitarisation of Al-Amarah will go on peacefully because the Sadrists have learned from previous experience that they can't resist a well-equipped army," the official told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity.
A close aide to Al-Sadr in Baghdad also anticipated a "quiet" control by the government forces on Al-Amarah, but he had rather different explanations to account for it. "The Al-Sadr Current is very aware of Al-Maliki's plan to undermine its chances in competing in the next local council elections and drive the public attention away from rejecting the security agreement that he wants to sign with the United States," he told the Weekly on condition of anonymity. He added that the Sadrists will work hard to ensure that their political and military structure remains intact. US and Iraqi commanders said senior militia leaders already have fled the area to neighbouring Iran, leaving only rank-and-file fighters behind. Al-Sadr's main office in Al-Amarah was evacuated and turned over peacefully to the local government on Sunday.
This avoidance of direct military confrontation with Iraqi and US forces attests to the new "hide and seek" tactics adopted by the Sadrists in order to rebuild their political and military bases. On Friday, Al-Sadr ordered that only a select group of his Mahdi Army confront US troops -- not Iraqi forces --- while the rest should focus on political and cultural work. That effectively disarms most of his unruly militia, which consists of tens of thousands of fighters.
Two days later, Al-Sadr top aides said the group's political movement would not compete in provincial elections later this year under its own slate but join other groups and asked its followers to vote for those candidates -- an apparent bid to get around a possible election ban on parties with militias. Al-Maliki has threatened last month to bar the movement from political life unless it disbanded the Mahdi Army.
Salah Al-Obeidi, spokesman for Al-Sadr, said Sunday that his movement is currently negotiating forming a wider political alliance to compete in the coming local elections to take place in October. He added that the negotiations involve the Iraqi List, headed by Iraqi former premier Ayad Allawi, and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari who led a split of Al-Maliki's Islamic Daawa Party, forming the National Reform Current.
A Sadrist political leader, who declined to be identified, said that the movement will triumph eventually. "The government is trying to flex its muscles by targeting the Mahdi Army fighters and our response is that we are sending a clear message to the Iraqi people that we want peace," he told the Weekly. He added that the Iraqi premier will lose the support of millions of Iraqis "who were misguided by security gains especially when he signs the shameful security agreement with the Americans."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Sunday that negotiations over a long-term security agreement with the United States could be signed by the end of July, contradicting an earlier statement by Al-Maliki who stressed that security talks had reached a deadlock.
Al-Sadr, along other Shia religious and political leaders, have condemned the drafts of the status of forces agreement presented by Washington, arguing that it seriously compromises Iraqi sovereignty.