Reports that Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his radical movement will end a boycott of Iraq's parliament are raising a number of questions about politics in Iraq. Steve Inskeep talks with Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project Director with the International Crisis Group.
Review a little bit of history for us. Why did Sadr's group boycott parliament in the first place?
They were angered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to meet with President Bush in Jordan before Christmas.
Is it a hopeful sign at all that they have now decided to come back to the formal political process?
Well, it is certainly a good thing. I think that excluding, or having the Sadrists exclude themselves from Parliament can only further upset the political situation in Iraq. The Sadrists are a political movement that has widespread support among especially the poor Shiite underclass in Baghdad and other cities. To exclude them would serve to further destabilize the situation. They have a great potential of making trouble.
Why did they come back?
They never completely rejected the political process. They merely suspended their participation, and I think also that the impending U.S. military offensive in Baghdad may have convinced them to at least have the political people back into the political process will give them some protection from retaliation. Whereas the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, is probably going to melt away in Baghdad and maybe take actions against American forces elsewhere in the country.
Let's talk about that. You've got Muqtada al-Sadr's parliamentary followers who are above board politicians, at least in public politicians. On the other side you have this militia. You're saying they may be doing completely different strategies: One seeming peaceful; the other being as violent as possible?
That has been Sadr's policy from the beginning. Even in the first elections in January 2005, the Sadrists officially were not participating, but defacto they were part of the Shiite alliance as independents. In the second elections, there were Sadrists who were openly participating as Sadrists and there were others who were opposing the political process, yet they were all part of the same movement.
Are they actually controlled by the same guy? Does Muqtada al-Sadr really tell both those groups what to do?
That's a very good question. It does seem the Sadrists have become more and more unmanageable as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, but I do think the political and military sides are still roughly under the command of Muqtada al-Sadr. He certainly has the ability of calling them out into the street. It's not clear he has the ability to call them to go back into their homes. It does seem there are spin-offs from the Mahdi army that are basically loose elements operating autonomously within Baghdad neighborhoods.
You forecast that as U.S. troops flood Baghdad as part of this so called surge, that Sadr's militia may melt away but remain active. Have Sadr's militia men already said we're going to go underground but continue fighting in response to the U.S. increase in troops?
No, there has been no public announcement of that sort, but we have seen some indication that some of the militiamen may be melting away. Muqtada al-Sadr himself has said that no retaliation will be carried out until after the holy month of Muharram, that has just started, especially the Ashura celebration of the Shiites.
hide captionShiite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has one of the largest militias in Iraq, the Mehdi Army, which has been involved in much of the sectarian violence in that country.
Shiite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has one of the largest militias in Iraq, the Mehdi Army, which has been involved in much of the sectarian violence in that country.
About the Series
A handful of Iraqis who are constantly in the news may determine Iraq's future. Some of them are people whom the United States is depending on to help fix problems; others are ones the Americans hope don't make things worse. Anne Garrels helps navigate the way through the complexities of Iraqi politics and politicians.
The radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is one of the most powerful people in Iraq, and one of the hardest to understand.
He has one of the largest militias in Iraq, the Mehdi Army, which has been involved in much of the sectarian violence in Iraq, especially in Baghdad. Sadr himself says he opposes sectarian killings, but much of the violence aimed at Sunnis is carried out by people who at least profess allegiance to him.
He has deemed the American presence of Iraq an occupation and has repeatedly called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. His anti-American position is similar to that of some Sunni groups. Despite the killings of Sunnis carried out in his name, he did oppose the U.S.-led attack against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah in 2004. And he has reached out to Sunnis in the southern port city of Basra.
While Sadr pays lip service to the mainstream Shiite religious leadership based in Najaf, his base of power is different. It comes as a legacy of his father — the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr — whose death (and that of Muqtada's brothers) the family blames on Saddam Hussein. The sprawling Shiite slum in northern Baghdad, Sadr City, is named for Muqtada's father. Muqtada built on that legacy by continuing to reach out to the poor and the disenfranchised in Iraq, and he is now wildly popular.
In many ways, he is copying what Hezbollah has done in Lebanon. His aides are in the community at the grass roots level providing basic social services, in a way that the mainstream Shiite establishment is not.
A nationalist, Sadr wants the United States out of Iraq, and for the country to be unified. However, his people are responsible for the ongoing sectarian violence which has driven Iraq into even greater chaos. An American general in Iraq says that Sadr has lost control of his militia, yet his movement does have secret courts where clerics under his auspices issue death warrants. Those decrees often target Sunnis who are perceived to be acting against Shiite interests.
Despite his radicalism — or perhaps because of it — Sadr has emerged as a key player in Iraqi politics. Members of his party control the largest bloc in the Shiite alliance in parliament. And it was his support that made Nouri al-Maliki prime minister. As a result, Maliki has defended Sadr, even when U.S. forces want to go after death squads acting in his name. In one case, Maliki forced the Americans to release a Sadr cleric who the United States believed was a key figure behind some sectarian death squads and lethal attacks on U.S. troops.
There is a growing consensus in the U.S. military that a direct conflict with Sadr and his militia is inevitable. There is also an attempt among other Shiite politicians to isolate Sadr, despite Maliki's support. It's a dangerous move. Sadr's forces, believed to be about 60,000 strong, could rise up throughout central and southern Iraq, leading to massive battles between the Mehdi Army on one side, and Iraqi and U.S. forces on the other.