Putting more U.S. soldiers in the streets of Baghdad risks a new showdown with a radical anti-American cleric who has modeled his movement after Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas.
Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has re-emerged as a key force in the majority Shiite community after suffering substantial losses during two uprisings against the U.S. military in 2004. Sunni Arabs believe the militia is responsible for kidnapping and killing thousands of Sunnis since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine.
Al-Sadr’s black-clad followers insist they simply protect Shiite communities that have suffered horrific losses at the hands of Sunni insurgents and religious extremists such as al-Qaida in Iraq since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in 2003.
Whatever the truth, there is no way to restore order in Baghdad without dealing with al-Sadr and his followers believed to be the largest and most active Shiite militia in Iraq.
U.S. officials believe disbanding Shiite and Sunni armed groups is essential to curbing the sectarian violence threatening the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. plans for removing substantial numbers of troops before U.S. congressional elections in November.
“If you don’t do this, you end up with a situation like you have in Lebanon, where the militia becomes a state within a state,” the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, said in an interview this week with National Public Radio.
“It makes the state impotent to be able to deal with security challenges,” he said.
Coalition forces already have begun moving against the Mahdi Army. In the last month, British troops have arrested the Mahdi commander in the southern city of Basra. And American soldiers killed 15 militiamen in a gunfight 40 miles south of the capital last weekend.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have staged at least two major raids this month in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army’s Baghdad stronghold.
But American military officials have been careful to avoid identifying al-Sadr and his forces by name. Instead, spokesmen describe engagements with “thugs and criminals.”
Their reluctance reflects al-Sadr’s stature in Shiite politics, which he has achieved despite strong resistance from other Shiite groups as well as the Americans.
Apart from an estimated 10,000 militiamen, al-Sadr’s movement controls 30 of the 275 seats in parliament and holds five Cabinet posts, including health, transportation and agriculture. Al-Sadr’s followers are part of the Shiite coalition which includes al-Maliki’s Dawa party.
Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the al-Sadr movement runs social services ranging from caring for widows and orphans to burying unclaimed bodies in Baghdad and other cities.
The parallels with Hezbollah reflect the network of clerical-led Shiite groups throughout the Middle East, which have been gaining strength due to the rise of both Iran and the Shiite community in Iraq.
Al-Maliki’s opposition to Israel’s attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon is a sign of the network’s influence in a changing Middle East.
The nexus of that network is the Shiite holy city of Najaf, the traditional educational and cultural center of Shiite Islam. Both Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, and Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, studied in Najaf.
Fadlallah’s teacher and mentor was Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, father-in-law of Muqtada al-Sadr and a founder of the Dawa party.
The younger al-Sadr has used ties to the Shiite power elite to outmaneuver the Americans over the last three years. The U.S. sought early on in the occupation to sideline al-Sadr, fearing his anti-American views.
U.S. officials believed al-Sadr was behind the April 10, 2003, assassination of cleric Majid al-Khoie, who was slain after returning to Najaf in hopes of winning support for the Americans from Shiite clergy.
A warrant was issued for al-Sadr in the al-Khoie slaying, but he was never arrested. Instead, the warrant was quietly shelved as part of the cease-fire deals the Americans accepted under pressure from Shiite clerics and politicians.
They feared a public backlash if foreign occupiers dealt harshly with the scion of one of the Shiites’ most prestigious families.