Al-Sadr Loyalists Defect from Iraq Shiite Alliance

Loyalists of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have defected from the Shiite alliance in Iraq's parliament. Liane Hansen discusses the latest developments in Iraq with Jamie Tarabay.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The war in Iraq is likely to top the national agenda again this week. President Bush is promising gradual reductions in U.S. forces there because of the military progress they've made. But his critics argue and the president himself admits that progress toward reconciliation in Iraq has been disappointing.

And this weekend, hopes for political headway in Baghdad suffered another blow. Loyalists of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have defected from the Shiite alliance in Iraq's parliament.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay is in the Iraqi capital. Jamie, first, Sadr was instrumental in getting Nouri al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite, appointed prime minister last year. Why is Sadr pulling his people out of this alliance?

JAMIE TARABAY: Well, it's been a contest of world from the beginning between Nouri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr. Maliki has been under intense pressure from Washington to crack down on all militias, including Sadr's, and he has avoided doing that for a very long time. And only recently, as part of this latest military surge, have Sadr's militia been targeted and arrested and attacked by American forces.

Sadr's group and the representatives of his block have also said that they feel sidelined politically by Maliki and his ruling coalition. They say that they've never been part of the real political process and they have repeatedly called for Maliki to do things like set a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and that's something that Maliki has repeatedly refused to do.

HANSEN: What does this do to Prime Minister Maliki's ruling coalition?

TARABAY: Well, it really depends on what Sadr's group decides to do now. They could really go forward if they have the numbers and put out a vote of no confidence of Maliki and his government in the parliament if they do have all the numbers.

HANSEN: How is Washington likely to view this development?

TARABAY: Well, Sadr has led two rebellions against American forces. And he and his militia controls many of the streets of Baghdad, especially the Shiite areas. They're in the police force. And, you know, whether Washington likes it or not, he has to be dealt with.

HANSEN: President Bush said on his speech to the nation that U.S. forces have helped insure that ordinary life is beginning to return to Baghdad. You're there. How accurate is that assessment?

TARABAY: You know, it really depends on what your definition of ordinary life is. I think that we've heard a lot of talk out of Washington about, you know, acceptable levels of violence. I think that with this military surge, with there being so many American soldiers in the streets of Baghdad, every particular neighborhood, I guess, the life goes on within your own particular sphere.

So if you're in a Sunni enclave surrounded by concrete walls, sure, you can go to the market. You can walk around quite freely and feel rather protected. But the minute you leave that Sunni enclave, then you're at the mercy of Shiite militia or, you know, police that you don't particularly trust.

So I think really it just depends on what your definition is on what's an ordinary life here.

HANSEN: NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad. Thank you, Jamie.

TARABAY: Thank you.

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