WORLD

ANGER IN THE FAMILY

Bitter divisions among Iraq’s Shias are further destabilizing the country

ADNAN R. KHAN November 27 2006
WORLD

ANGER IN THE FAMILY

Bitter divisions among Iraq’s Shias are further destabilizing the country

ADNAN R. KHAN November 27 2006

ANGER IN THE FAMILY

Bitter divisions among Iraq’s Shias are further destabilizing the country

ADNAN R. KHAN

WORLD

In the constant, numbing stream of news about escalating bloodshed in Iraq, it was a brief round of violence easily overlooked. But in fact the clashes in late October in and around the southeastern Shia city of Al Amarah were part of a troubling trend, albeit one that has largely been obscured by the larger story of Iraq’s ShiaSunni-Kurdish divisions. According to local accounts, the fighting began after members of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army killed a police official belonging to the Badr Organization—a rival Shia militia. That attack resulted in three days of battles between the two organizations that left 25 people dead, more than 160 wounded—and observers worrying about further internecine battles among the Shia.

Even prior to that bloody outbreak, anyone labouring under the illusion that Iraq’s majority Shias are a unified force needed only look back to the spring of2004At that time, when al-Sadr’s followers rose up in rebellion over the occupation of Iraq by foreign forces, there was fear and trepidation among many Shias. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army was on the offensive, prodded into action by its then 30-year-old leader’s increasingly acidic speeches denouncing the occupation. In Al Kut, 175 km southeast of Baghdad, adolescent militiamen had routed Ukrainian forces. “We are keeping the peace now,” said Sheik Abdiljawad, a 30-year old al-Sadr representative, as bands of youthful fighters, some barely in their teens, patrolled the city’s deserted streets with AK-47 assault rifles. “But if anyone wants to fight us, we are ready.” Others promised they would die before giving up the town to infidels. Their day of reckoning was near, many of them claimed, and it was: two days later, American forces had bombed their headquarters into rubble and retaken the town with barely a fight.

Around the same time, during the Arbaeen festival in Karbala, one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam, Mahdi fighters were conspicuously absent. The festival marks the end of the 40-day mourning period following the commemoration of the 680 CE death

of Imam Husayn ibn All, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and, the Shia believe, his rightful successor. Many felt it was a time for all Shia to unite, regardless of factional loyalties. But Arbaeen that year was under the control of the Badr Organization, loyal to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the most powerful faction in the current government. Its militiamen provided security for the flood of pilgrims pouring into Karbala from all corners of Iraq and Iran.

The Mahdi Army, according to its leaders, did not want to cause any tension during such a sacred time. But they were also keen to remind SCIRI of the popular support they enjoyed. So, on the last day of the festival, Mahdi fighters in the thousands, dressed in their traditional black uniforms, materialized out of the city’s warren of avenues and alleyways. They paraded through the streets, waving posters of their leader, then disappeared, but their message was obvious: we are here, and we are strong.

The bad blood between the two factions was reflected among the people of Karbala. “Muqtada al-Sadr is the new Saddam,” said Hussain Abdil Amir, a 4 3-year-old shop owner and a supporter of the Badr militia. And despite an apparent reconciliation between al-Sadr and SCIRI following Iraq’s national election in January 2005, most Shias expected the divisions to resurface, as they did in Al Amarah just weeks ago. Now, with the new Democrat-controlled Congress in Washington pushing for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, and the Bush administration indicating that it’s now willing to re-examine the U.S. role in Iraq, those clashes are a further reminder of the full-scale anarchy that could grip Iraq.

Iraqi officials have said the fighting in the south is local and does not threaten the unity of the Iraqi government. But the power struggle between rival Shia factions does

point to a deeper crisis for Iraq’s ruling coalition, already a patchwork of competing personalities stitched together by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. In his rise to prominence, al-Sadr, whose distaste for the U.S. is no secret, positioned himself as a defiant Iraqi nationalist leader, demanding a full and immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops. His agenda at times coincided with that of Sunni nationalists and former Baathists who have been spear-

heading the Sunni insurgency. Occasional, albeit short-lived, alliances between al-Sadr’s militia and Sunni insurgents created a nexus of anti-American opposition that crossed the traditional Sunni-Shia divide.

Al-Sadr has since been, to some degree, co-opted into the Iraqi government, where he has been playing an increasingly important role, even discouraging sectarianism among his aides and followers. But there are widespread concerns that his militiamen are out of control, and no longer heeding his orders. In Al Amarah, the violence apparently began at the orders of a local leader, and continued despite al-Sadr’s appeals for calm.

For the Badr Organization, loyalty to the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, dominated by SCIRI, is absolute. Badr militiamen have joined the army ranks and police forces, building commando units and death squads that target Sunnis with the tacit approval of their SCIRI overseers. They co-operate with the U.S., carrying out joint operations that occasionally target Mahdi leaders.

With such a fundamental division in political ideology, the Mahdi Army and Badr Organization are bound to come into further conflict. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi fighters, more in touch with the mood on the streets, have developed their support base within local communities, recruiting fighters from the poor neighbourhoods of Baghdad and other Shia-dominated cities to the south. They view the Iraqi government as an agent of American and British imperialism. The newly appointed commander of the British army, Gen. Richard Dannatt, who recently called for British troops to leave Iraq “sometime soon,” pointed out that the British presence in the south “exacerbates the security problems,” meaning, in part, that foreign occupation is further dividing Iraq’s Shia community.

Will pulling out foreign troops fix the problem or simply open the floodgates to a civil war that not only pits Kurds, Shias and Sunni against each other, but Shia against Shia? Too much mistrust already exists between the various militias. And as the fighting in Al Amarah showed, even Iraq’s co-religionists find it all too easy to take up arms against one another. M