Is the Cease-Fire with Sadr on the Brink?

Will the Iraqi government's crackdown on militias in Basra push Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to end the cease-fire that began in August? Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, says the Sadrists have been increasingly frustrated at being targeted by U.S. and government forces.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi government, and the fighting today in Iraq. Peter Harling is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. He joins us from Damascus. He's traveled several times to Iraq over the years.

And, Peter Harling, from what you understand, who has chosen this moment for a showdown? Is it the Mahdi army, is it its rival militia, or is it the government?

Mr. PETER HARLING (Senior Analyst, International Crisis group): Well, it doesn't seem like the Mahdi Army itself chose the moment. The Iraqi government decided to embark upon this major offense in the city of Basra, which has created a rather spectacular backlash on the Mahdi Army's part. But that is the result of developing a trend in Iraq. We've witnessed increasing frustration among the Sadrists, both at the rank-and-file level and higher up in the hierarchy with the behavior of the Iraqi government and the coalition.

Basically, Moqtada al-Sadr enacted a unilateral ceasefire. Regardless, the U.S. have continued to target the Mahdi Army militants in what the Sadrists themselves describe at a very indiscriminate way. And they also tend to accuse the U.S. of fighting with pro-government's militias, Shiite militia…

SIEGEL: Umm-hmm.

Mr. HARLING: …I mean, in a vast struggle between Shiite militia throughout the south.

SIEGEL: But one explanation of moves against the Mahdi Army that we've heard in recent months is that there are many irregular units or splinter groups. People aren't following Moqtada al-Sadr's orders, and the crackdowns, therefore, are justified. What do you make of that rationale?

Mr. HARLING: Well, I think, I mean, there's obviously some truth in that, but it's also a misleading way to characterize the movement, which has always been very fractured and has always lacked discipline. Moqtada al-Sadr himself cannot impose discipline upon the movement. He can only rule by consensus.

And this is what makes the current situation extremely wearying, in the sense that it's very difficult for Moqtada al-Sadr to take a stand, take a position which goes directly against the interests and perceptions of his own power base. And the pressure is building up upon him to the point where it might be difficult for him to stick to this notion of a ceasefire.

SIEGEL: One interpretation of Moqtada al-Sadr's declaration of a ceasefire was that he foresees a U.S. withdrawal just beyond the horizon. Why get mixed up in fighting now when he could reassert himself in another year and a half or so?

Mr. HARLING: No, no, they - no doubt that Moqtada wants to avoid this kind of confrontation. The Sadrist movement has tried it already in 2004, achieved no results and lost many, many of it militants.

So since then, the movement has politicized itself, has played a part in the political system, has moved on to other forms of militancy, let's say. They have also been waging a kind of attrition war against the coalition throughout the south, but they don't what this kind of head-on confrontation that seems to be about what happened today. So this civil disobedience is action, but something short of calling for an all-out war against the coalition and the Iraqi government.

SIEGEL: Do you think that we should hear in that appeal for a civil resistance the implicit statement, this is our next-to-last option, if you don't respond to this, then we fight again?

Mr. HARLING: Well, there's been a lot of signaling on the part of Moqtada's senior advisers over the past few weeks. They are really feeling the heat from the base of the movement. And I do think that the ceasefire is extremely fragile. And it will take rather significance, a tangible shift in the U.S. policies in the way it deals with the Sadrist movement as a whole for the ceasefire to hold.

SIEGEL: Just one last question. As we heard in Lourdes Garcia-Navarro's report, we heard a resident of Basra saying this effort to reassert control for the government to take control away from militias there is welcomed by many people in Basra. If the Nouri al-Maliki government could actually achieve something there, in the way of restoring order, it would seem to be quite a success for the government if they can actually do that, you know.

Mr. HARLING: Well, it's certainly the first time that the Iraqi government is taking on some major military operations without the U.S. playing the key role. In contrast with the surge as it unraveled in Baghdad, the Iraqi troops this time are in the lead, have little support from the coalition - the coalition has very feeble presence in the south and in Basra, the British are not very willing to take on a major role in this offensive, but this is going to be indeed the test by which the Iraqi government can prove, or not, its capability.

SIEGEL: Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. HARLING: Thank you for having me.

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