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Muqtada moves to stop a Sunni 'surge'

Sami Moubayed


November 15, 2007

DAMASCUS - The world is seemingly too busy these days to mind the day-to-day news coming out of Iraq - much to the pleasure of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. With the spotlight off him, Maliki gave an interview to the Saudi television channel al-Arabiyya, in which he asserted that "There is no civil war in Iraq." He added, "We don't have a militia problem in Iraq anymore." He wrapped up by noting that Iran does not have a decision-making influence on the Prime Minister's Office in Baghdad.

Maliki knew that he was, to put it politely, not telling the truth. In addition to spreading false public relations about his administration's effectiveness in combating terrorism, the Iraqi premier was also doing something very important. He was reconciling with the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. Or at least, he was trying to find common ground with his former allies, recently turned enemies. Muqtada quit the government this year.

This week, Muqtada called for a renewal of his truce with both American forces and those of the Iraqi government. It is a gesture of goodwill towards Maliki. Another six months of peace and quiet from the Mahdi Army, giving the prime minister more room to concentrate on other pressing issues, like the looming war between Turkey and Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, along with the Iraqi Accordance Front, which joined him in walking out on the prime minister earlier this year, Muqtada is calling for a dissolution of Parliament and early elections.

Some claim that this will lead to a vote of no confidence against the prime minister and bring down his government. But if that happens, it might be a blessing for Maliki, who if re-allied to Muqtada would again win parliamentary elections and have a chance to create a cabinet free of all the luggage from his first tenure. Instead of facing Maliki and the Iraqi Accordance Front, Muqtada would face the Iraqi Accordance Front with Maliki.

On the surface, the truce renewal seems to serve Muqtada well, as a man working for collective security - even if it means putting controls on his own supporters. While the world observes his "truce", however, many of his men have flooded into the Iraqi security services, under a plea from none other than Maliki.

Reportedly, 18,000 militiamen have joined the Iraqi security apparatus; this is similar to what happened when Lebanese militiamen were absorbed by the Lebanese Army after the end of the civil war in 1990. Many of those now abandoning guerrilla uniforms in exchange for the military outfits of the Iraqi army are former members of the Mahdi Army.

What is the reasoning behind such a strange move? It already has surprised and in some cases enraged leading Sunni personalities, who believe that the army is going to become all Shi'ite. One of the leading politicians to come out and criticize Maliki on the issue is Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi.

One reason could be a last-minute decision by Shi'ite leaders to get Shi'ite young men into the armed forces - regardless of their political affiliations - to prevent these posts from being filled by Sunnis under pressure from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates, operating under the principle of former US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, has insisted on bringing Sunnis back into senior government and military posts.

One the one hand, militias are being absorbed into the army. On the other hand, 1,500 Iraqis are returning to Iraq per day (according to the London-based al-Hayat) from Syria. That too is troubling the prime minister and Muqtada since most of those returning in large numbers are Sunnis. This comes after Syria decided to implement restrictions on visas to control the 1.5 million-plus Iraqi community in Syria. If al-Hayat is correct and this pace continues, in nearly four years all Iraqis will be out of Syria and back in the civil war arena in Baghdad.

If peace and stability are not achieved in their country by then, the chances are they will join underground militias, since they pay more than the army or any other government job. This would be a blow for the already paranoid Shi'ites, who complain that the Sunni insurgency launched by former Ba'athists and members of al-Qaeda targets them as much as it targets the Americans. At present, the Iraqi government offers 1 million Iraqi dinars (US$812) for every family (not individual) that returns to Iraq. It's almost as if Maliki and Muqtada are telling them: please, don't come back!

Maliki and Muqtada fear a rebirth of Iraqi Sunnis at the expense of Shi'ites. This explains 18,000 Shi'ites being formally authorized to hold arms by joining the Iraqi army. This explains why Maliki is becoming bolder in turning his back on the Accordance Front. Recently, he received a list of 16 names earmarked to replace those of the Accordance Front in government, put forward by the Iraqi Awakening Council in Ramadi. Most prominent on the list was Sheikh Hamid al-Hayes, ex-Anbar Awakening president and current head of Iraq Awakening.

Salim Abdullah, a spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, said, "Those who have met Maliki from the Anbar Awakening and presented candidates to fill in [posts left vacant] by the Front, have breached the agreement made by the Anbar tribes with the Front, to present no candidates for posts left vacant by the Front."

Abbas al-Bayati of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) reportedly said that Maliki has already chosen three ministers off this list, to further anger the Sunni Front and perhaps to please Muqtada.

Muqtada's changing fortunes

The Sadrists had worked with Maliki since 2006. He promised them government support and office while they gave him legitimacy in the poorer districts of Baghdad and among the Shi'ite community at large. They were allowed to keep their militias armed. Maliki also turned a blind eye to their military activity, and used his influence at every interval to prevent the US military from cracking down on the Mahdi Army in Baghdad's Sadr City.

When things became rough, the Sadrists upheld Maliki's regime in the Shi'ite street. This was done through indoctrination and intimidation, but mostly through money and reward. The two men parted when Muqtada insisted on Maliki severing his ties to US President George W Bush and demanded a timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq.

They were already at odds when it came to the degree of Iranian influence needed in Iraq, relations with the Kurds, and the distribution of oil wealth with other communities. Maliki easily - almost gladly - let go his troublesome ally. Muqtada had become an embarrassment for the prime minister regarding not only the US but the Arab world at large.

The Arabs had a major problem with Muqtada, seeing him as sectarian and blaming him for anti-Sunni events, such as the humiliating execution of Saddam Hussein in December 2006. As long as Maliki remained under Muqtada's influence, he would forever remain very unwelcome in the Arab world because he was believed to be vehemently anti-Sunni.

When the marriage of convenience broke up, Maliki started to strike at the Sadrists. They collectively walked out of Parliament and the Maliki cabinet, getting other Iraqi heavyweights to do the same and increasingly isolate the prime minister. Maliki now only has a few Shi'ites supporting him within the UIA, along with Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani (head of the Kurdish Regional Government) and Jalal Talabani (Iraq's president).

Over the past six months, however, Maliki has come to realize that the Mahdi Army is stronger than he thought. Keeping it out of government and arresting its members did not make it disappear. The Americans could not get rid of Muqtada. Nor could Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. Nor could former prime ministers Iyad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jaafari. And in fact nor could Iran, which was never too pleased at his maneuvering in Iraq and his independence from full Iranian control. The closest thing to a "peaceful" Muqtada who was not using his militia for armed attacks against anybody was Muqtada in government.

To be fair to the Mahdi Army, however, we must acknowledge two realities. One is that its members were voted into power through truly democratic elections and were the overwhelming choice of Iraqi Shi'ites. That is why the UIA brought them into the Iran-backed coalition in the first place. Why? Not because they promised liberation, but because they vowed to end corruption, promised better security and more jobs, along with administrative, social and political reforms not for Iraqis as a whole but for Iraqi Shi'ites in particular.

They promised social justice based on an Islamic agenda. When the Sadrists were voted into power, they were dying to be recognized as statesmen rather than guerrilla warriors. They made several important gestures towards the Americans, crying "Uncle" without actually saying it (after having waged a war against the US in 2004), by the de facto legitimizing of the US presence in Iraq. By joining the government, they were accepting its legality.

The only way to prevent the Sadrists from being a state-within-a-state was to let them become the state, or major power-sharers within the state. The case is similar to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. By accepting the duties of power, and sharing responsibility and accountability before the international community, Muqtada could not - even if he wished - continue his military war against his opponents in the Iraqi arena (Americans included).

Now it appears the political wheel has gone full circle, with Muqtada opting once again for the statesman's role.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved


:: Article nr. 38263 sent on 16-nov-2007 01:09 ECT

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