Less than two weeks after Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki launched Operation Knights’ Assault to clear the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backer militias in Basrah, the Iraqi government is moving to ban Muqtada al Sadr’s political movement from participating in the election if it fails to disband the militia. Facing near-unanimous opposition, Sadr said he would seek guidance from senior Shia clerics in Najaf and Qom and disband the Mahdi Army if told to do so, according to one aide. But another Sadr aide denied this.
The pressure on Sadr and his Mahdi Army started on Sunday after Maliki announced the plans to pass legislation to prevent political parties with militias from participating in the political process. “The first step will be adding language to a draft election bill banning parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall,” Reuters reported on Sunday. “The government intends to send the draft to parliament within days and hopes to win approval within weeks.”
Today, Maliki was explicit that the legislation was aimed at Muqtada al Sadr, his Sadrist movement, and the Mahdi Army. “Solving the problem comes in no other way than dissolving the Mahdi Army,” Maliki told CNN. “They no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mahdi Army.”
Maliki’s advisers have also been clear the Mahdi Army is the target of the legislation. “We want the Sadrists to disband the Mahdi Army. Just freezing it is no longer acceptable,” said Sadiq al Rikabi, a senior adviser to the prime minister. “The new election law will prevent any party that has weapons or runs a militia from contesting elections.”
The legislation is said to have broad support from the major Sunni, Kurdish, and Shia political parties, and is expected to quickly pass through parliament. The details of the legislation were outlined by the Political Council for National Security, which included the Kurdish president, the Sunni and Shia vice presidents, the prime minister, and the leaders from the major political parties. No political parties other than the Sadrist movement have opposed the recommended legislation.
The declaration caught the normally triumphant Sadrist politicians off guard. “We, the Sadrists, are in a predicament,” Hassan al Rubaie, a Sadrist member of parliament said the day the news broke. “Our political isolation was very clear and real during the meeting,” he said, referring to the meeting of the Political Council for National Security, where the legislation was announced.
Rubaie confirmed the Sadrists have now been isolated politically. “Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament,” Rubaie said. “We must go and explain to [Sadr] in person that there’s a problem.”
The Sadrist movement has been caught off guard by the government’s announcement, and is making conflicting statements. One aide said Sadr is rushing to consult senior Shia clerics in Iraq and Iran for guidance. Another aide backtracked. He denied Sadr was seeking advice from senior clerics and the decision to disband was Sadr’s alone.
“Muqtada al Sadr has ordered his offices in Najaf and Qom to form a delegation to visit [Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani] in Najaf and (other leaders) in Qom [in Iran] to discuss disbanding the Mahdi Army,” Hassan Zargani told Reuters on April 7. “If they order the Mahdi Army to disband, Muqtada al Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders.”
Sistani, who has resisted making political edicts, is said to have grown disillusioned with Sadr and his Mahdi Army after the waves of sectarian bloodshed during 2006. Sistani has promoted Shia unity but Sadr’s political movement has operated outside of the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance.
But the Sadrist movement soon changed directions and claimed it would not seek advice from the senior Shia clerics to disband the Mahdi Army. “Shiite Cleric Muqtada al Sadr did not think of dissolving the Mahdi Army,” said Sheikh Salah al Ubeidi told Voices of Iraq on April 7. “We have no right to interfere in freezing or dissolving the Mahdi Army because it is an exclusive right of Muqtada al Sadr.”
Motivations for isolating the Sadrist movement
Some analysts have suggested that Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, is a driving force behind recent military and political efforts to isolate the Sadrists. ISCI currently dominates the regional governments in Southern Iraq after the Sadrists boycotted previous regional elections. The Sadrists are expected to do relatively well in upcoming provincial elections set into motion by the recent passage of the Provincial Powers Act. Thus, it has been widely anticipated that ISCI will try to find a way to diminish the Sadrist Movement prior to elections, and recent events fit nicely with that theory.
But the broad-based support for the isolation of the Sadrists among most of the country’s major parties and political blocs illustrates the limits of this theory. Sadrist ineptitude and obstructionism with the government, such as its use of the Health Ministry to conduct sectarian murders in 2006, as well as the criminality and violence associated with increasingly unpopular militias, have rallied a variety of political players across the political spectrum against the Sadrist Movement.
Iraqi, US militaries continue to pursue the Mahdi Army and Iranian-backed groups
The move to force Sadr to disband the Mahdi Army comes after the Iraqi military and police confronted the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Basrah and the South at the end of March. The Iraqi forces met stiff resistance in Basrah as the whole of Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army rushed to fight the security forces. A brigade from the Iraqi Army apparently cracked during the offensive, and about 500 soldiers “underperformed or defected” along with about 400 police. The Iraqi brigade was only five weeks out of training; it is the Army’s newest formation.
The Iraqi military immediately began rushing forces into Basrah; about 7,000 soldiers, special forces, and SWAT units were moved to Basrah to join the fight. Meanwhile, Mahdi Army forces attacked in Baghdad and the wider South. US and Iraqi forces killed nearly 200 Mahdi fighters in Baghdad. The Iraqi security forces quickly restored security in the cities of Najaf, Karbala, Hillah, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Al Kut, and Amarah with minimal US assistance.
Just as the new Iraqi forces began to arrive in Basrah and US and British forces were gearing up to augment the Iraqi military, Muqtada al Sadr, under orders from Iran’s Qods Force, called for his fighters to withdraw from the streets. Sadr issued a nine-point list of demands, which included that operations cease. Maliki refused and Iraqi and US forces continued to move into Basrah and conduct pinpoint raids against Shia terror groups. More than 200 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 700 were wounded, and 300 captured during the six days of fighting in Basrah alone.
Maliki has said the military will continue to operate against the Mahdi Army, and US and Iraqi forces have kept Sadr City and Shula in Baghdad under curfew. US and Iraqi forces fought pitched battles in Sadr City over the weekend. At least nine Mahdi Army fighters were killed by US helicopters after attacking Iraqi patrols in the city. Twenty Iraqis were reported killed and more than 50 wounded during the fighting.
Maliki has said the military would continue to operate in Sadr City and other Mahdi Army strongholds in Baghdad. “We have opened the door for confrontation, a real confrontation with these gangs, and we will not stop until we are in full control of these areas,” Maliki said on April 7.