The decision made by Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to halt his Mahdi Army’s attacks on occupation forces and Iraqi security is likely to be considered the single most promising breakthrough for the U.S. military in Iraq. Although the move comes ahead of several reports to be presented to the U.S. Congress later this month, the decision was ultimately an outcome of a long-brewing intersectarian conflict between Shi’a Iraqis, which will further complicate the devastating American failure in Iraq.
Al-Sadr’s decision followed widespread clashes at Karbala on August 26, during one of the holiest Shi’a festivals. Despite various accusations of outside involvement, the clashes were apparently Shi’a through and through, involving militant members of the Badr Brigade of the Islamic Supreme Council (lead by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a duel ally of the U.S. and Iran) and al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Both of these groups are Shi’a, but they differ significantly in terms of their loyalty to Iran: al-Sadr, although backed by Iran, often invokes an Iraqi national sentiment, while the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council is unabashedly pro-Iran. While the latter has been heavily involved both in the sectarian killings and the massacres of (mostly Sunni) civilians, it coordinates most of its work with the U.S. military, and is in fact heavily represented in the Iraqi army, police and intelligence. Yet, it is the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council that is affiliated with the Shi’a high authority Ali al-Sistani, and both hold unquestionable allegiance to Iran. The U.S. also claims to fight Iran’s agents in Iraq (who are blamed for the development of most destructive types of guerrilla warfare tactics) and yet Iran plays an uncontested role in determining the overall policies of the ruling Shi’a parties in Iraq who are willing collaborators with the U.S. military.
Al-Sadr’s recent decision was, predictably, welcomed by the Americans, who are likely to take any opportunity to prove the successes of their most recent operations. Top official Gen. David Petraeus has already boasted about the troop surge leading to a reduction in sectarian fighting. Statistics, however, directly contradict such claims. Figures from the Associated Press show that the month of August registered the second highest civilian death toll in Iraq 1,809 civilians since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. The sharp rise is largely attributed to the quadruple suicide bombings on August 14, near the Syrian border, which killed 520 people.
The significance of that incident aside from its devastating death toll is of less consequence than the inner Shi’a fighting, considering that the targeted group is a small minority that played next to no part in the raging conflict. However, it will most likely be underlined further by the U.S. to detract from the fact that their once reliable allies in Iraq are now engaged in a perplexing fight over control of the southern part of the country, where most of the oil wealth is concentrated. Southern Iraq is also important to groups vying for power because the city of Basra directly borders Iran, the main ally for Iraqi Shi’a and their major source of political validation, and Najaf and Karbala, two of the holiest cities for Shi’a around the world are located in the south (the recent clashes in Karbala were about controlling these shrines). With the British vacating their positions in Basra, Shi’a groups, who had hitherto displayed a degree of unity in their fight against Sunnis, are now increasingly likely to lock horns; those who control the south seem set to emerge as the future power brokers of the country.
Although capable of inflicting widespread damage, al-Sadr’s chances of becoming this power broker are slim. For one, his Shi’a rivals receive greater backing from Iran, which has displayed a largely Machiavellian attitude towards the situation in Iraq, choosing never to bid on the underdog. The advent of the Americans has also worsened the position of the Sadrists as they became largely excluded from all government institutions. The new Iraqi hierarchy favored the followers of al-Hakim, who apparently represented a more dominant and perhaps more trustworthy (from an American point of view) group of Shi’a.
However, despite his seemingly erroneous strategies and media depictions as a “radical,” al-Sadr has actually adopted a very careful balancing act. He has continued to appeal to his Shi’a followers in a way that sets him apart from al-Sistani, while simultaenously maintaining good relations with al-Sistani and Iran. He has even occasionally appeared sympathetic to the plight of the Sunnis.
Yet his relative political shrewdness could hardly bridge the gap between the various Shi’a groups, which remains essentially ideological and an extension of the theological contention between the Hawza followers of al-Sistani and the followers of Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada’s father. The divide between the two religious Shi’a schools is as real as ever and the new economic woes and power struggles are likely to bring back to the fore and further fuel these differences. With the Badr Brigade claiming a 70,000-strong militia and al-Mahdi counting over 50,000, both groups are overwhelmed with fear and mistrust; under these circumstances, the prospect of co-existence seems bleak.
We know very little of why al-Sadr decided to send the al-Mahdi army into hibernation. He claims that his militias are being infiltrated by Iran, but this is unconvincing given that al-Sadr uses Iran as a personal escape whenever his safety is threatened at home. The U.S. military continues to crack down on his followers, and the Iraqi military, mostly controlled by his rivals, are carrying out mass arrests in Sadr city and elsewhere. A lenient al-Sadr may well inspire revolt amongst his followers and send the inner Shi’a fight on an early and destructive path, or he might find himself compelled to resume the fight on behalf of his own group. Both scenarios would be bad news for the Americans, who would be forced to watch an escalating Shi’a power struggle in a country they supposedly control.