Shiite Contest Sharpens In Iraq
Sadr and U.S. Ally Refocus on South

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

KARBALA, Iraq -- Posted at the door of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's office recently, a flier denounced the arrests of his followers. Up and down the barricaded street, soldiers and policemen loyal to his Shiite rivals stood sentry, some in tan armored personnel carriers, questioning anyone they suspected of links to the populist cleric.

Inside the shuttered office, five guards spoke frankly of their sense of vulnerability and weakness. Once in control of the streets of this southern city of holy sites, the Sadrists said they have been chased underground, their rivals at their heels.

The arrests of Sadr's loyalists are part of a broader power struggle between the two most powerful Shiite factions seeking to lead Iraq: the Sadrists, who are pushing for U.S. troops to withdraw, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Bush administration's main Shiite ally. Given the nation's majority-Shiite population, this intensifying confrontation could play a major role in deciding Iraq's future.

This year's U.S. military offensive and dramatic shifts in tactics by both Sunni and Shiite groups are redrawing the balance of power across Iraq. With less violence between Sunnis and Shiites, festering struggles within each community may come to define the nature of the conflict. In the Shiite-dominated south, Sadr's main Shiite rivals are taking advantage of the surge in U.S. troops, as well as Sadr's imposition of a freeze on operations by his Mahdi Army militia, to make political gains.

"They are all gathering against us," said Ayad Abu Ali, a wiry, broad-shouldered militia guard who had sent his family into hiding and now hardly leaves the office.

U.S. forces have arrested hundreds of Mahdi Army militia members in Baghdad, creating voids in the leadership. This has emboldened Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces, loyal to the Supreme Council and other political parties, to reach for power in the south. In cities such as Karbala, Diwaniyah and, most recently, Hilla, scores of Sadr's followers are routinely being detained.

"If this American pressure did not exist on the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, of course Iraqi security forces would not be able to make these arrests in the southern provinces," said Abdul Hadi al-Mohammadawi, a cleric who heads Sadr's operation in Karbala. "And if the freeze did not exist, this would not be happening."

Struggle in the South

In the southern holy city of Najaf, pilgrims sat against a wall of the Imam Ali shrine, one of Shiite Islam's most sacred sites. On the ornate facade is a white patch in the shape of the face of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim. Assassinated by a car bomb in August 2003, Hakim was the leader of the Supreme Council. His younger brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq's most powerful politicians, now heads the party.

Six months ago, Supreme Council loyalists sought to create a portrait of the elder Hakim in brickwork on the shrine's facade. But Sadr's followers took to the streets and stopped them from finishing the project.

"Each side is determined to be in control of the south," said Mohammed Jassim, a prominent tribal leader in Diwaniyah province.

The competition has its origins in the days when the fathers of Hakim and Sadr, both preeminent ayatollahs, fought to lead Iraq's Shiites. Under Saddam Hussein, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim spent years in exile in Iran. Sadr remained in Iraq, bolstering his street credentials. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, Hakim embraced the Americans, while Sadr went to war against them, launching two major uprisings in Najaf in 2004.

Today, their struggle is multidimensional, playing out along lines of personality, class and ideology. The contest is a street fight over turf, a tug of war over oil revenues and a battle for control of the shrines. Sadr's militia has targeted Hakim's party offices and fought his movement's armed wing, the Badr Organization. Both militias are widely believed to have operated death squads targeting each other and Sunnis.

The fight is also political; both parties control 30 seats in Iraq's parliament. Last year, Sadr backed Nouri al-Maliki for prime minister, largely to prevent Hakim's candidate from gaining office. By the end of 2006, the Bush administration and Hakim had grown closer, to counter Sadr's growing street power.

In Najaf, a city governed by Hakim's party, posters of Sadr and his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was assassinated by Hussein's men in 1999, have mushroomed defiantly on the streets. Hakim's portrait, usually paired with a portrait of Iraq's paramount Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, hangs in many police and government offices.

This year, Sadr and Hakim have sought to position themselves at the center of Iraq's ideological sphere. To bolster his nationalist credentials, Sadr pulled his loyalists from Iraq's factionalized government and tacitly approved the U.S. surge offensive. Hakim removed the word "revolution" from the name of his political party, suggesting that it was no longer an armed opposition group.

"It was based on reality, and not a maneuver," said Sadr al-Din al-Qubanchi, a turbaned cleric who heads the Supreme Council in Najaf. "Who were we going to revolt against? We are leading the political process."

The change was also widely seen as an attempt by the Supreme Council to distance itself from Iran's theocratic government, which uses similar slogans.

A referendum on creating an autonomous Shiite region of nine provinces is scheduled for April, mandated by Iraq's constitution, although political deadlines in Iraq are seldom met. The Supreme Council wants a mini-Shiite state, but opponents such as Sadr, who views himself as an Iraqi nationalist, fear it will lead to a breakup of the country.

"It is the war of the wills," said Hazim al-Araji, a senior Sadr official in Najaf. "Everyone is trying to improve their position for the sake of winning the elections. Perhaps these will take place next year, so they want to eliminate the Sadr trend."

"That is as clear to me as the sun at midday."

Clashes and a Freeze

On a recent day, scores of black-cloaked women loyal to Sadr flowed into the city's center. They clutched large white banners protesting the arrests of their husbands and sons -- Sadr's foot soldiers. Some of the women came from Diwaniyah, most from Karbala. They wailed, and they chanted: "Our Shia government! Release our sons! Release our husbands!"

Twenty minutes later, police loyal to the Badr Organization arrived and broke up the protest, which had been coordinated by Sadr's movement.

The arrests of Sadr's loyalists began after fierce street battles in late August around two holy shrines in Karbala. The fighting pitted Mahdi Army gunmen against guards believed to be loyal to the Badr Organization. More than 50 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest days of Shiite-on-Shiite violence since the U.S-led invasion in 2003.

Karbala's police chief blamed the Mahdi Army for firing rocket-propelled grenades and guns from rooftops toward thousands of pilgrims gathered between the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines. An Iraqi government committee, headed by independent lawmaker Mithal Alousi, also found the militia largely responsible, although the committee has not completed its investigation. Sadr officials have denied the allegations.

The clashes prompted Sadr to impose the freeze on his militia's operations. He also signed a peace agreement with Hakim, although tensions remain high.

In Karbala alone, Iraqi security forces have detained more than 400 of Sadr's loyalists, including commanders and fighters. In contrast to Najaf, once-pervasive images of Sadr and his father have all but disappeared from many neighborhoods.

"Now there is no Sadr trend in Karbala, except us," said Ayad Abu Ali, the guard at the Sadr office. "Everyone has fled."

The Supreme Council, he said, "dominates in Karbala," but the soldiers on his street were loyal to the Dawa party, led by Maliki. Under heavy U.S. pressure, Maliki distanced himself this year from his political benefactor, Sadr, and shifted closer to Hakim. The Dawa party is also competing with Sadr and Hakim to guide the nation's Shiites, although it lacks a militia and a strong popular base.

Senior Supreme Council leaders and Dawa party officials denied that the arrests of Sadr's followers were politically motivated. "There's no truth to this," the Supreme Council's Qubanchi said.

Aqeel al-Khazaly, Karbala's governor and a Dawa member, said that of the 400 arrested, 120 were convicted by a court of participating in a militia-related attack and an additional 120 were released. "We're not targeting a political party by itself," he said.

Reaching Out

In recent weeks, sunflower-yellow posters have surfaced around Karbala and Najaf advertising a contest for the best Koranic handwriting.

"Fourteen thousand people have entered so far," said a smiling Hassan al-Hakim, the general supervisor of the Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation and a nephew of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

Seeking to change the image of the Supreme Council, the foundation has spent millions on building mosques and elementary schools, caring for orphans and providing aid to 65,000 poor or displaced families. It has also funded trips to Iran for Shiite pilgrims and bankrolled one of Iraq's largest mass weddings, with more than 1,000 couples each receiving as much as $800 cash, a bed, new clothing and household goods.

"We are trying to present Iraq with a moderate, middle vision," said Hassan al-Hakim, who wore gray and black clerical robes like his uncle. "We respect the elites, but we want to reach everyone."

That could prove difficult. The Supreme Council's links to both Iran and the Americans have eroded popular support. Voted into the government as part of the ruling Shiite alliance in 2005, the movement is also blamed for not improving basic services or boosting the economy. Even members of the Shiite business elite, core Hakim supporters, are grumbling.

"We elected Abdul Aziz al-Hakim because he was one of us," said Abu Ali, a merchant near the Imam Ali shrine who asked that his nickname be used. "But has his coalition done anything for the people?"

Hakim is battling lung cancer, although he has appeared healthier in recent weeks. His successor remains unknown.

By reaching out to the urban underclasses, the Supreme Council is wooing Sadr's core constituency. For years, the Sadrists have brought social services to the Shiite masses.

Despite the arrests, Sadr's close aides say the cleric will maintain the freeze on his militia's operations. It is in part a pragmatic decision: The U.S. and Iraqi raids have weakened his movement. But Sadr is also trying to exert control over his unruly, decentralized militia, parts of which still commit atrocities.

"We are rebuilding the Mahdi Army," said Salah al-Obaidi, Sadr's chief spokesman in Najaf. "We want them to be well disciplined, well educated."

If all goes well, Sadr might extend the freeze, scheduled to end in February, Obaidi added. That could bolster the young cleric's popularity, especially during the April referendum, if it takes place. U.S. military commanders are now publicly commending Sadr for the freeze.

"He wants to be more like his father, who was a religious leader, and to have influence on the government in a peaceful way," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq.

Sadr's top aides have vowed to win their bid to lead Iraq's Shiites. The Supreme Council "is claiming they are our biggest rival, but in fact they have no popularity in the south," said Mohammadawi, Sadr's representative in Karbala. "They are trying to seize power in every way, but they can't. They will fail."

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