Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sadrists Threaten to End Cease-Fire

Some members of the Mahdi Army's leadership have become impatient with the slow pace of reconciliation in Baghdad:

In Shiite areas to the south, some top advisers to the cleric al-Sadr have urged him to drop the cease-fire order on his Mahdi Army when it expires next month. The critics are angry over ongoing campaigns by U.S. and Iraqi forces against so-called rogue fighters who refused to put down their weapons.

Al-Sadr's followers claim the U.S.-Iraqi raids are a pretext to crack down on the wider movement, which has pulled his support for the Washington-backed government.

The maverick cleric announced earlier this month that he would not renew the order unless the Iraqi government purges "criminal gangs" operating within security forces he claims are targeting his followers.

That was a reference to rival Shiite militiamen from the Badr Brigade who have infiltrated security forces participating in the ongoing crackdown against breakaway militia cells the U.S. has said were linked to Iran.

The political commission of al-Sadr's movement — along with some lawmakers and senior officials — said they were urging the cleric to follow through with his threat, pointing to recent raids against the movement in the southern Shiite cities of Diwaniyah, Basra and Karbala.

"We presented a historic opportunity when we froze the (Mahdi) army," Nasser al-Rubaie, leader of the Sadrists in parliament, told reporters. "But they didn't take advantage of it."

The group planned to send a formal message to al-Sadr's main office in the holy city of Najaf, two Sadrist legislators and a member of the political commission told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution.

Much of the security in Baghdad is attributable to the cease-fire between Sadr's and American and Iraqi forces. An end to that cease-fire would not likely result in the open battles between Mahdi Army forces and American troops circa 2003 and 2004, but it is likely to result in the smoldering conflict that had existed from early in the occupation to last year when the surge was initiated. And the pressure is on Sadr to relent on the cease-fire, as Eric Martin explains:

The tension is everpresent and, due to recent events, mounting. The problem for Sadr is that, as usual, his movement is being pinched by his chief Shiite rivals, ISCI and their Badr Corp. militia which has been largely incorporated into the "official" Iraqi security forces. Thus, whereas Sadr was willing to countenance some level of US military/ISCI operations targeting certain fringe Mahdi Army characters and other rogue types, ISCI is overreaching and is attempting to cripple the Sadrist current ahead of upcoming elections - and more generally speaking.

The restive factions within the Sadrist current are gaining support and their cause legitimacy due to ISCI's overbroad crackdown. Increasingly, they are forcing Moqtada's hand. Most likely, Sadr will try to let these publically aired concerns serve as a warning to ISCI and the US to pull back on the throttle, or else. He has done this in the past on numerous occasions to some level of success - albeit temporary. If this most recent gambit does not get ISCI and the US to back off, however, Sadr might have no choice but to call off the cease fire. Either that, or he risks creating a major schism in the Sadrist current with substantial portions opting out of the cease fire for lack of patience.

It bears repeating that the window on substantial political progress in Iraq is closing. As Martin points out in the same post, fractures are beginning to appear in the Anbar Awakening movement touted last year as such a success, as Sunni militia leaders realize that their "deal" with the Americans is being stymied by resistant Shiite politicians. Additionally, al Qaeda refuses to die even as operations persist against it in Mosul.

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