STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's what happened in just one of several deadly incidents in Iraq over the weekend. Insurgents put on U.S. military uniforms. They drove to a government compound on the city of Karbala, and they were waved through a checkpoint on their way to a gun battle that left five Americans dead.
This morning, we're tracking the moves of a group blamed for much of Iraq's violence. It's the political party and militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr. He's a Shiite Muslim leader. And his movement has decided to end its boycott of Iraq's parliament. Analysts who track Sadr include Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, who's monitoring events from Jordan. Mr. Hiltermann, welcome to the program.
Dr. JOOST HILTERMANN (Middle East Project Director, International Crisis Group): Thank you.
INSKEEP: Review a little bit of history for us. Why did Sadr's group boycott parliament in the first place?
Dr. HILTERMANN: Well, they were angered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to meet with President Bush in Jordan before Christmas.
INSKEEP: And is it a hopeful sign at all that they've now decided to comeback to the formal political process?
Dr. HILTERMANN: Well, it's certainly a good thing, because I think that excluding - or having the Sadrs exclude himself from parliament can only further upset the political situation in Iraq. The Sadrists are a popular movement that has the widespread support among especially the poor Shiite under class in Baghdad and other cities. To exclude them would further destabilize the situation. They have a great potential of making trouble.
INSKEEP: Why'd they come back?
Dr. HILTERMANN: 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 that to at least have the political people back into the political process will give them some protection from retaliation. Whereas the Mahdi Army, Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, is probably going to melt away in Baghdad and maybe undertake actions against the American forces elsewhere in the country.
INSKEEP: Hmm. Well, let's talk about that. So you've got Moqtada al-Sadr's parliamentary followers who are above board politicians - or at least in public, politicians. And on the other side you have this militia. You're saying that they maybe doing completely different strategies - one seeming peaceful, the other being as violent as possible.
Dr. HILTERMANN: That has been Sadr's policy from the beginning. Even in the first elections in January 2005, the Sadrists officially were not participating, but de facto, they were part of the Shiite alliance as independents. And in the second elections, there were Sadrists who were openly participating as Sadrists, and there were others who were opposing the political process. And yet they're all part of the same movement.
INSKEEP: Are they actually controlled by the same guy? Does Moqtada al-Sadr really tell both those groups what to do?
Dr. HILTERMANN: Well, that's a very good question, of course. And it does seem that the Sadrists have become more and more unmanageable as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated. But I do think that the political and military sides are still roughly under the command of Moqtada al-Sadr. He certainly has the ability of calling them out into the street. It's not clear that he has the ability to call them to go back into their homes. And it does seem that there are spin-offs from the Mahdi Army that are basically loose elements operating autonomously within Baghdad neighborhoods.
INSKEEP: Mr. Hilterman, I want to ask about one of the things you said. 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 militiamen already said we're going to go underground but continue fighting in response to the U.S. increase in troops?
Dr. HILTERMANN: No, there has been no public announcement of that sort. But we have seen some indication that, in fact, some of the militiamen may be melting away. Moqtada 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.
INSKEEP: Hmm. Well, we'll be watching in the weeks ahead. Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. Thanks very much.
Dr. HILTERMANN: My pleasure.
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