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Muqtada raises the stakes in Iraq

Asia Times
April 11, 2007
By Sami Moubayed
Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has raised the stakes in Iraq by calling on his militia, the Mehdi Army, and Iraqi security forces to stop fighting each other. In a statement delivered by Muqtada from a hiding place inside Iraq (believed to be Kufa), he said, "O army and police of Iraq, do not follow the occupier - he is an enemy."
Muqtada is charismatic - certainly by Iraqi standards - and his appeal to the men in uniform to split from the US carries much weight, as they see him as a resistance leader dedicated to the liberation of Iraq.
Muqtada's call comes as the Mehdi Army is engaged in fighting with Iraqi and US forces in the central city of Diwaniya. The fighting broke out on Friday after the United States launched Operation Black Eagle aimed at returning control of Diwaniya to the Iraqi government. The US military says more than 60 militants have been killed or captured by the about 3,300 US and Iraqi troops. In the past year the town has been a battlefield for Shi'ite and Sunni militias.
The operation is an extension of the Baghdad security plan that has been under way in the capital since February. Similar battles to the one in Diwaniya took place last October, also with the aim of wiping out the Mehdi Army, but they, too, failed.
In another move that illustrates how Muqtada is emerging from a period of relative quiet (he was even said to have fled to Iran), the cleric urged tens of thousands of people to march to the city of Najaf on Monday, the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.
The protest against the US occupation went off peacefully. Significantly, Iraqi soldiers in uniform joined the crowd, according to the Associated Press.
Muqtada mystery
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki should fire his public relations team. In February, there was the fabricated story that Muqtada had fled Iraq, fearing the prime minister's Baghdad security plan.
Those familiar with Iraq knew that Muqtada would never leave - at least not to Iran - because he was never actually targeted by Maliki. That plan targeted Sunni militias, not Muqtada. The two men are sleeping in the same bed and support each other for mutual gain. Maliki seeks legitimacy from Muqtada's influence in the Shi'ite community and Muqtada looks for access to the upper echelons of power, immunity and a share in government.
All talk about Muqtada fleeing to Iran was just a ploy by the prime minister to achieve a double objective. One would be to show his resolve as a man who could bring order to Iraq and make the fearless Muqtada drop to his knees and evacuate the battleground. It also would have shown the world that Muqtada was not working under the US-backed Maliki's umbrella.
This was needed to restore credibility to Maliki - and Muqtada - who were being criticized for being two sides to the same coin.
Now, Maliki's office has come up with a new story, also aimed at polishing his image. They said that while heading for a trip to the Far East on Sunday, his plane was prohibited from entering Iranian airspace. Maliki had to turn around and head for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and then to Japan. Why would Iran do such a thing?
Maliki is a member of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the parliamentary majority whose head Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim is Iran's No 1 man in Iraq. Although the premier is not on the Iranian payroll (at least not directly), he nevertheless aims at modeling his country after the theocracy in Tehran and is friends with its leaders.
Last September he even paid a state visit to Iran and was received with red-carpet treatment by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The Iranians might not love Maliki, but they certainly like him, because he is a strong Shi'ite nationalist who strives to curb Saudi influence in Iraqi affairs. If anything, preventing him from entering Iranian airspace was just another publicity stunt to show the world that the prime minister of Iraq is not a stooge for Iran.
Maliki would be welcomed a million times in Iran for relentlessly championing Iraqi Shi'ites and giving their militias the green light to operate against Sunni militias. His Baghdad security plan is entering its third month, and still none of the Shi'ite militia commanders are behind bars, nor have their arms been confiscated.
Last week, Shi'ite shepherds entering a Sunni area were abducted by armed groups west of Baghdad. They had come from the Shi'ite city of Karbala to Sunni-dominated al-Anbar province. These abductions are in response to the numerous death squads, all orchestrated by Shi'ite commands, that are persecuting Sunnis, mainly in the capital.
Political showdown
The Grand Sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar Mosque, Mohammad Said Tantawi, one of the highest official authorities in Sunni Islam, sent a message to the Iranian leadership that he is disgusted with their meddling in Iraqi affairs. He used strong language against the militias supported by Maliki and Tehran.
This message was delivered through former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who has just wrapped up a visit to Cairo. Tantawi asked the Iranians to use their strong influence in Iraqi affairs to promote reconciliation, rather than confrontation, between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
The message fell on deaf ears, however, both in Baghdad and Tehran. According to the Iraqi daily Al-Zamman, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, operated by the Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), still uses its police force to strike at the Sunni community. That complaint has been heard over and over since the days of prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Neither Jaafari, however, nor Maliki was able to stop this abuse of government office practiced publicly by the SCIRI. Al-Zamman reported that more than 2,500 people have been killed, execution-style, over the past six months, most of them Sunnis. It also quotes an official at the Baghdad morgue saying that he had received 16,000 bodies over the past 12 months, all murdered with signs of torture. The only people to blame for the continued bloodshed are Maliki and Muqtada.
Maliki has been under immense pressure, however, to change his habits. The US has given him a June deadline to get his act together, wipe out the militias and reconcile with the Sunnis.
Adding pressure is a bid by former prime minister Iyad Allawi to return to office. Allawi, who has just returned from a tour of major Sunni states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan), promises to achieve everything Maliki has not: disbanding the militias, confiscation of arms and reconciliation with Sunnis.
Allawi's campaign, if anything, has forced Maliki to make some gestures toward Sunnis in the hope of preventing them from following the former prime minister. On Friday, Maliki ordered pension payments to former officers of the Iraqi army, a step aimed at defusing rising Sunni anger. The now-disbanded army had had 350,000 troops and officers, most of them now jobless and penniless.
With few choices, they have been forced to join Sunni militias. All persons above the rank of major, Maliki said, will be given the pension of an officer and those wishing to re-enlist are welcome, but need a clean bill of health from the military command.
Maliki, along with President Jalal Talabani, was supposed to introduce a law in Parliament allowing former officials, including in the dreaded security forces of Saddam Hussein, to regain their jobs. They would be placed on probation for three months, after which they would become eligible to continue their lives - pardoned of any wrongs (not crimes) committed in the Ba'ath Party era.
These measures were put forward on March 26 but never made it to Parliament. They were made public by the premier shortly after an Arab summit in Riyadh, where the Sunni community promised to put more effort into stabilizing Iraq, at the expense of the Shi'ite militias. Adding urgency to Maliki's desire to publicize the law, which counters his famed de-Ba'athification campaign, was Allawi's recent trip to Saudi Arabia.
Another development over the weekend threatens to bring down the Maliki cabinet. Adnan al-Duleimi of the Iraqi Accordance Front threatened to withdraw his members from Parliament if Maliki does not show more seriousness in applying the Baghdad security plan. Duleimi, whose party is a coalition of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi People's Conference and the Dialogue Council (all Sunni groups), is furious that Maliki has failed to bring Shi'ite militias to order, claiming that his security plan has turned "sectarian".
Among other things, Duleimi wants to change the Sunni minister of defense (a member of his own party) because he has failed to stand up to the security forces of the SCIRI at the Ministry of Interior. Maliki, pleased at the defense minister's weakness, has refused this demand, claiming that it would upset the security plan. If Maliki sticks to his guns and the Accordance Front joins forces with Allawi, the premier will be in serious trouble.
Already, the Sunni minister of justice has resigned. If more ministers step down, the cabinet will face a constitutional crisis and have to present its resignation to Parliament. That would mean ejecting the SCIRI from the Ministry of Interior and the Sadrists from the major ministries they hold, including Health and Education. By law, the UIA would be called on to form a new cabinet, because it still commands a majority in Parliament, but political considerations would force it to choose a new prime minister.
Maliki's days could be numbered, given these political pressures and the pressure from the US. Muqtada, too, would be affected and Iraq's political landscape could undergo yet another major change, and Muqtada could be heading for more open confrontation with the US military.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.
Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd.
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