Thursday, May 1, 2008

The heat is on Muqtada

A Good Piece

By Sami Moubayed
Asia Times

".....Who is behind all of this?
Some claim the Americans asked Maliki to strike, as a condition for keeping him in power, so he can bring some law and order to Iraq before the term of President George W Bush expires in January 2009.

The Americans have wanted to eliminate Muqtada from day one, but were prevented from doing so, first under the mediation of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, then under Maliki's direct intervention. Maliki needed Muqtada to obtain legitimacy in the Shi'ite community when first becoming prime minister in May 2006.

Muqtada legitimized him among young Iraqis and poor Iraqis, while Maliki provided a security umbrella. Nobody would harass the Mahdi Army as long as he was serving as prime minister. In addition to six seats in the Iraqi cabinet, and 30 seats in Parliament (all obtained by virtue of Muqtada's popularity) the Sadrists were allowed to keep their militia - and often use it - to settle old scores with the Ba'athists, or new ones either with al-Qaeda and rising Sunni militias.

Provided these arms were not being used against Maliki - or the Americans - then everybody seemed pleased with Muqtada. Soon, however, Maliki could no longer control the power and ambition of Muqtada. The young cleric learns quickly - too quickly some would say - and started creating a system that made him the uncrowned king of Baghdad.

Learning from the Hezbollah model and inspired by Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, he eliminated any anti-Sunni rhetoric from his speeches and began calling for rapprochement with Sunnis. At a time when Maliki was increasingly unable to deliver anything to disgruntled Sunnis, they found solace in the words of Muqtada. Despite the bad blood between them in 2004-2007, especially after Muqtada's team accused the Sunnis of blowing up the holy Shi'ite site at Samarra, the Sunnis were willing to work with Muqtada to bring down Maliki. Muqtada had personally and publicly challenged the Sunnis by discriminating against them in government ministries under his control, like the Ministry of Health, Commerce and Education. He turned a blind eye to the death squads roaming the streets of Baghdad - searching for trouble, with Sunni notables. He did nothing to prevent attacks on Sunni mosques, the assassination of Sunni clerics and the razing of Sunni neighborhoods after the attack on Samarra.

All the same, Muqtada seemed less dangerous than Maliki because he was clear about his agenda and his vision. He does not tolerate the Americans in Iraq, just like the Sunnis despise them. He does not want to partition Iraq and give the Shi'ites an autonomous district in the south, which had been called for by Maliki's ally, Hakim. Although he wants a theocracy inspired by the Iranian model, he nevertheless does not want the Iranians to meddle in Iraqi affairs. He wants to maintain Iraq's Arab identity and strengthen its relations with its Arab neighbors.

Maliki feared a double deal; some kind of united front between the Sunnis and Muqtada, and under American urging, cracked down on the Sadrists.

The Iranian angle

Others claim Iran gave a green light to Maliki during the March visit of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, to wipe out the Sadrists. This is a little confusing since confirmed reports from Iran claim that at one point during the past six months, the Iranians began to see an ally in Muqtada. They realize that their former proxy, Hakim, is aged, ailing with cancer and unable to control the Shi'ite community of Iraq for much longer. His successor, Ammar al-Hakim, is no match to the popularity of Muqtada and will be unable to keep either the SIIC or Badr united once Abdul-Aziz parts the scene.

Additionally, the Iranians are afraid that at one point, their other proxy in the Arab world, Hezbollah, will get caught up in a civil war, or another confrontation with Israel that might severely weaken, if not break, its powers. Or if Syria signs a peace deal with Israel (something that is currently a hot issue due to the initiative of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan), then part of the deal would be a break between Damascus and Hezbollah.

With Badr losing its popularity, Hakim marching into obscurity and Hezbollah in critical waters, the only credible alternative is the Mahdi Army. Hakim and Muqtada, however, are not on good terms. They are traditional enemies, fighting from one generation to the next, over control of Iraqi Shi'ites........

Muqtada, learning from Nasrallah, began sending monthly subsidies to families in need, who in turn pledged full support, and distributing money at will to young Shi'ites, either to join his political movement or the Mahdi Army. It seemed like the logical and prestigious thing to do. Muqtada has legitimacy and family history. He is a cleric and rising in religious prominence, as a result of him returning to the books to reach the title of grand ayatollah.

He is nationalistic and wants to see an end to the Americans in Iraq. And although he may have become close to the Iranians, he is by no means a puppet of Iran. If the Iranians did in fact give Maliki the green light to crush him, this would have been either 1) to reach some kind of back-channel deal with the Americans. 2) They realized that cooperation with him was limited and he would never allow himself to become another Hakim.

Rather than have him as a thorn in their side, the Iranians decided to rid themselves of him. This would first empower their original proxies, Hakim and Maliki. Second, it would send off a powerful message to the Americans, or at least, whomever succeeds Bush.

This might explain why, on April 30, the Sadrists came out with a strong-worded statement against Tehran, accusing the Iranians of "dividing influence" with the Americans on Iraq. This is proven, the Sadrists added, by the lack of objections from Iran to what is happening in Sadr City or to the Iraqi-US talks regarding a long-term political and military agreement. Iran is "behind the nightmares in Iraq".

Either way, whether Muqtada is under attack as a result of an American plan, or an Iranian one, he has a major fight on his hands. "

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