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May 5th, 2010


Iraq’s Shiite Parties Unite

Deal gives them strong chance at setting up next government


May 4, 2010

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s two largest Shiite electoral blocs announced Tuesday they have formed an alliance that gives them a strong chance of setting up the next government, though they have yet to work out the contentious question of who would become prime minister.

Maliki and SadrThe coalition deal between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and the conservative Shiite Iraqi National Alliance leaves them just four parliamentary seats shy of a ruling majority.

The union could cement Shiite domination of Iraq’s government and further alienate minority Sunnis who lost their positions of privilege with the fall of their patron Saddam Hussein in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Such an outcome threatens to stir further violence at an especially fragile moment in Iraq as American troops prepare to withdraw. It could also ensure that neighboring Shiite power Iran maintains influence in Iraqi affairs. …

Al-Kazemi, who took no questions from reporters, was flanked by officials from State of Law and the movement of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers make up the strongest group in the Iraqi National Alliance. …

Role of Sunnis

Tuesday’s news raises questions about what role the Sunnis, who widely backed [Ayad] Allawi, would have in any new government the Shiite alliance would be able to form. Neither State of Law nor the National Alliance have much more than token Sunni support.

Forming a government that excludes them would deepen Sunni disillusionment and sow further instability. …

The alliance immediately drew the ire of Allawi’s Iraqiya. A spokeswoman for the bloc, Maysoun al-Damlouji, warned that this indicated a return to sectarianism. She said the alliance was designed to undermine Iraqiya and, alluding to Iran, she said it was carrying out the will of a “neighboring country.” …

Support from Iran

State of Law won 89 seats in the new parliament, and the Iraqi National Alliance won 70 seats. Their combined 159 seats leave them just four away from the simple majority required to govern.

The pan-Shiite alliance is believed to have heavy support from neighboring Iran, which has at different times played host to Shiite politicians in an attempt to create just such an alliance. …


Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (File photo; not part of above AP report)

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Related report

Shiite Militia Revives in Iraq

Sunnis fear return of sectarian bloodshed seen in 2007


Followers of radical Shiite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr wear white shrouds to signal their readiness for martyrdom as they march in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, on April 30, 2010. (Photo credit: Karim Kadim / AP)

By Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra

May 4, 2010

BAGHDAD – A once-feared Shiite militia that was crippled two years ago by defections and a U.S.-Iraqi crackdown has quietly started to regroup, adding street muscle to the Shiite party that emerged strongest from Iraq’s parliamentary elections.

The revival of the Mahdi Army, loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, could be an ominous sign. An al-Sadr spokesman says the force is gearing up to ensure U.S. forces stick to a Dec. 31, 2011 deadline to withdraw from the country – threatening attacks on American troops if they stay past the date.

In the near-term, Sunnis fear the militia will turn its firepower against their community in vengeance after an uptick in militant violence against Shiites in recent months, a move that could revive the fierce sectarian bloodshed that nearly tore the nation apart in 2006 and 2007.

Al-Sadr disbanded the militia in 2008. But his spokesman, Salah al-Obeidi, told The Associated Press that it has now officially been revived.

The militia’s armed wing, called the “Promised Day Brigade,” will “prepare quietly to launch qualitative attacks against the occupiers (U.S. forces) if they stay beyond 2011,” he said. “It will have a big role to play to drive them out of Iraq.”

In a show of the movement’s new boldness, al-Sadr offered to help Iraqi security forces – who have almost no visible presence in their eastern Baghdad stronghold – protect Shiites after a wave of bombings April 23 targeted their places of worship. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not respond, and a top aide, Ali al-Adeeb, expressed doubt that the government would accept the offer.

Militia deployed at mosques

So al-Sadr took matters into his own hands. Last Friday, his militiamen deployed at the sites of the weekly Muslim prayers organized by the Sadrists in Baghdad’s Sadr City – home to some 2.5 million Shiites – and across the Shiite south of Iraq, throwing a security ring around their mosques, searching worshippers and vehicles.

The Mahdi Army’s return comes during a dangerous political vacuum resulting from the inconclusive March 7 vote. No political bloc emerged with the parliamentary majority needed to form a new government, sparking wrangling between al-Maliki and his top rival, Iyad Allawi, that is likely to last for weeks, maybe months. Similar deadlocks have in the past coincided with a marked rise in violence.

The Sadrist movement made considerable gains in the election, winning 40 of the legislature’s 325 seats, the largest number by a single Shiite party. As a result, the Sadrists could hold the role of kingmakers in a new, Shiite-led government.

Set up in 2003, the Mahdi Army rapidly grew into the primary Shiite force in Iraq during the hardest years of the Sunni-led insurgency. It protected Shiite neighborhoods, and was believed to have been behind many of the sectarian slayings of Sunnis during the Shiite-Sunni violence of 2006 and 2007. It also fought U.S. forces in two major uprisings.

In 2008, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces drove its fighters off the streets of Baghdad and southern cities. By the time of its defeat, many of the militia’s neighborhood vigilantes dabbled in protection rackets, black marketeering and kidnaping for ransom. Others have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law on Shiite residents, shutting down music stores, hair dressers, bombing liquor shops and forcing women to cover up head-to-toe in public.

Vow of secrecy

After disbanding the militia, al-Sadr sought refuge in neighboring Iran, moves that plunged the Mahdi Army into disarray. The more militant of its fighters broke away and formed Iranian-backed cells to attack U.S. forces.

Al-Obeidi, the spokesman for al-Sadr, said that besides the armed wing, the militia has two other divisions – the “Momahedoun,” or those who pave the way, and the “Monaseroun,” the loyalists, which respectively focus on religious indoctrination and the mobilization of supporters.

A Mahdi Army commander said the military wing now boasts several thousand fighters, though he refused to give a specific number. He said it has a strict code of conduct and secrecy, barring fighters from revealing their members on pain of expulsion. …

Ready for martyrdom

Mahdi Army militiamen in their trademark black shirts have taken to parading again on the streets of Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere. Some of them perform the prayers wearing white shrouds, signaling their readiness for martyrdom.

In the mainly Shiite port city of Basra in southern Iraq, there have been a series of recent attacks on liquor stores and a number of unresolved murders of security officers thought to have been involved in the ill treatment in detention of Mahdi Army members. Security officials speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation say the attacks bear the hallmarks of the Mahdi Army. …

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Related reports on this site

Muqtada al-Sadr on the March (March 31, 2010)

Image: Shiite demonstrators in Baghdad
Thousands of demonstrators march during a rally at Firdous Square in Baghdad, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008. Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called America “an enemy of Islam,” marched against a pact letting U.S. forces stay in Iraq until 2011 and toppled an effigy of President George W. Bush where U.S. troops once tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein. (Photo credit: Ali al-Saadi / AFP – Getty Images)

Iraq Set to Elect Pro-Iran Leader (Feb. 25, 2010)

US puppet Iraq Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and anti-U.S. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerge from their meeting in Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Wednesday Oct. 18, 2006. Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is the founder and is said by the US to be the leader of Iraq's most feared militia, the Mahdi Army. Picture: AP/Alaa al-Marjani
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerge from a meeting in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, in this October 2006 file photograph. (Photo credit: Alaa Al-Marjani / AP)

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — May 5, 2009

Image: A boy inspects a bombed car
A boy inspects the aftermath of a car bombing in Baghdad on Monday, May 4, 2009. (Photo credit: Hadi Mizban / AP)

Iraq Wants U.S. Out of Cities

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that Iraq’s government ruled out allowing U.S. combat troops to remain in Iraqi cities after the June 30, 2009 deadline for their withdrawal, despite concern that Iraqi forces might not be able to cope with the security challenge following a resurgence of bombings.

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