Iraq Has Tenuous Relations with the Sadr Militia
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
For more on the Mahdi Army and its leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, we're joined by Peter Harling. He's a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group and he joins us from Amman, Jordan.
Mr. Harling, thanks for being with us.
Mr. PETER HARLING (Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group): Well, thank you for inviting me.
NORRIS: First, your reaction to today's news from Amarah?
Mr. HARLING: Well, I mean it does come as a surprise in the sense that Moqtada al-Sadr, the purported leader of the Mahdi Army, has been calling repeatedly for the past few months on his followers not to respond to what he calls U.S. provocation. Not to fall in the trap, as he says, of a new cycle of open confrontations with the coalition.
So this is a clear sign that his so-called followers do act in contradiction with Moqtada's official discourse.
NORRIS: And what does that say to you? What would be the explanation for that?
Mr. HARLING: Well, I mean this is a trend in Iraq as a whole. What you need to do is think in terms of grassroots dynamics, bottom-up dynamics. I don't think any of these presumed leaders has much control anymore over his followers.
NORRIS: So this army is almost in an adolescent stage where it's sort of stepping out on its own?
Mr. HARLING: Well, yes. I mean I don't think that the Mahdi Army is ready for a new confrontation, so I do think that this won't degenerate into a new round of high-intensity fighting. But still, I mean it is a clear sign that Moqtada's control over the movement is weak to say the least. I mean he does play a significant role as a symbolic figure, but his operational control of the movement is weak.
NORRIS: The Mahdi Army has taken over towns in the south of Iraq before. In 2004, they took over Kut, and they're largely in control of Sadr City. Could you help us understand how much of a force they represent?
Mr. HARLING: They are extremely powerful, at least as a social force. I mean the great strength of this movement is the cohesiveness of the Sadrist power base.
I don't think it's extremely well equipped, well armed. It lacks discipline. It doesn't have any clear sponsor abroad. To understand the Sadrist phenomenon today, you have to go back to the '90s and the mobilization movement which was initiated by Moqtada's father, who was a leading ayatollah in religious circles in Najaf.
Just to sum it up, this Sadrist phenomenon reveals a deep divide in the Shiite society in Iraq between what we could call conservatives, and this is a coalition of traditional leaders, merchants in the religious sanctuaries like Najaf, Kabala and other cities of the kind. So you have the conservatives on one side and you have this revolutionary class composed of young, urban, disenfranchised Shiites who tend to live in specific neighborhoods. So in Baghdad you have a neighborhood now called Sadr City. In Basra, you have very much the same kind of neighborhood in which Sadrist militants are extremely active.
NORRIS: Now we should note that there are also other Shiite militias. How powerful are they and what's their relation to the Mahdi Army, to Sadr's militia?
Mr. HARLING: Well over the past few months we've been conducting fieldwork in Basra, for example, the second biggest city in Iraq and Iraq's southern capital. You have a variety of Shiite militias operating in Basra which are competing between each other over control of local resources, and in particular oil smuggling. What's interesting in Basra is that the violence isn't linked to sectarianism or to resistance to the occupation. What happens is that this violence is basically between Shiite militias who are competing over resources. And the interesting thing here is that this is - this here again reveals the absence of any kind of faith.
NORRIS: Mr. Harling, thank you very much.
Mr. HARLING: Oh, thank you.
NORRIS: Peter Harling is a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. He spoke to us from Amman, Jordan.