No Consensus Over Who’s Winning Contest for Shia Strongholds in Iraq
By an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.
Analysts are split over whether firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr or the Iraqi government has the upper hand in their battle for control in Basra and parts of Baghdad.
In a press conference on April 3, Maliki claimed victory following a one-week military operation against Sadr’s Mahdi army militia in the southern city of Basra. He vowed to provide jobs and aid to Basra while further cracking down on militias in Baghdad’s Sadr City and Shuala neighbourhoods, where the Mahdi army holds substantial power.
But some analysts questioned whether the government won the battles or if the operations served to strengthen Sadr’s popularity. The fighting in Basra subsided earlier this week when Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets.
Maliki has now ordered a nationwide freeze on raids against suspected Shia militants after Sadr complained that arrests had continued even after he ordered his fighters to stop, said an Associated Press report on April 4. The report said the prime minister made the announcement after Sadr had apparently hinted he would retaliate if arrests of his supporters continued.
Amer Fayadh, a political science professor at Baghdad University, maintained that the military was not well-prepared for the operation.
“The fact that members of the security forces were surrendering to the Sadr movement is evidence that Sadr enjoys popular support,” he said.
A test of Sadr’s support will come next week. The cleric has called one million Iraqis to take to the streets in a march against the US-led occupation on April 9, the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. Last week, the US backed the Iraqi military’s operations by bombing suspected Sadr strongholds in Baghdad and Basra.
Usama al-Nijefi, a member of parliament with the secular Iraqia list, said Iran brokered the ceasefire agreement between Sadr and the government after representatives from Maliki’s United Iraqi Alliance went to Iran.
“The Iranian intervention is obvious and considerable in Basra,” he said. Iran is “supporting the militias militarily and even providing intelligence to them”.
Nijefi said he believes that the clashes stemmed from political disputes between Sadr and Maliki, rejecting the government’s claims that it needed to conduct military operations to eradicate rogue militias threatening security.
“The fighting that is continuing in Basra is about political and party fights,” he said. “It’s not about targeting gangs in the city.”
Nijefi’s view is widely shared among those who believe the October 2008 provincial elections triggered fighting between rival Shia parties over control of the oil-rich southern city. The Sadr movement has repeatedly accused Maliki’s Dawa party and the powerful Supreme Islamic Council of using official agencies such as the police to target its members.
"We know and also al-Maliki knows that those who steal the wealth in Basra and smuggle [oil] are other political factions and not the al-Sadr movement. But still Maliki insists on arresting al-Sadr movement members," said Sadrist lawmaker Falah Shanshal.
"The reason is obvious, it is because of the upcoming provincial elections. They know that the al-Sadr movement is going to win."
He said the authorities wanted to direct a blow to the movement, "by arresting the movement's members to reduce their chances [of winning the elections]."
But Baghdad-based political analyst Najah al-Attiyah maintained that the Sadr movement is losing ground in its fight for power. He noted that the movement does not have a consistent platform, with provincial elections only six months away.
“There are a lot of contradictions in the movement,” he said. “They’ve asked people to extend olive branches to show that they are peaceful. Then they suddenly call on people to participate in a civil disobedience campaign. Then it’s peaceful solutions for all of the problems. [Now] they are threatening Maliki.
“If the Sadr movement is torn apart, then how can they make peace with others?”
Iraqi military operations are continuing in Basra, though the fighting is on a much smaller scale than that of last week.
Interior ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abdul-Karim Khalif said the military will continue its operations “until it meets its goals, which include arresting outlaws, seizing large weapons and ending smuggling activities”.
But Hassan al-Sanid, a Maliki advisor, said the military will not prosecute Sadr militias in Basra.
“The government won’t arrest or chase down militants belonging to the Sadr movement which participated in the recent incidents in Basra,” he said.
On Iraq’s streets, Shias are divided in their support for Maliki and Sadr. In Baghdad, pro-Sadr graffiti includes slogans such as “This is Maliki’s grave”. Other slogans include “Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim lives here”, in reference to the powerful head of the Shia Supreme Islamic Council and Maliki’s ally.
The military campaigns are fuelling Sadr supporters’ resentment of Maliki and splitting the already-fractured Shia community. In the Shia-majority provinces of Karbala and Najaf, there were pro-government demonstrations backing the military operations in Basra last week. In the southeastern Shia provinces such as Missan, Diwanyah and Nasriyah, demonstrators poured onto the streets to protest against Maliki.
“We brought Maliki to power, and we will bring him down,” said Talib al-Mussawi, a 34-year-old Sadr supporter in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighbourhood. “We elected him, and now he is calling us thieves and outlaws.”
The IWPR-trained journalist who authored this report asked to remain anonymous for security concerns.
For more detailed coverage, go to www.iwpr.net
Tags: Iraq , Shia , Muqtada Al-Sadr , Basra , Baghdad
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