Between Iraqi Shiites, a Deepening Animosity

Militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate after attacking an Iraqi army vehicle in Sadr City. Sadrists feel betrayed by the government led by their Shiite rivals.
Militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate after attacking an Iraqi army vehicle in Sadr City. Sadrists feel betrayed by the government led by their Shiite rivals. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 7, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 6 -- As verses from the Koran floated from a loudspeaker, the Shiite militia commander's face glowered. Inside the cavernous funeral tent, a large portrait of his 16-year-old son, Mustafa, hung over the mourners. Abu Abdullah, who fought U.S. troops and Sunni insurgents for five years, never expected his son to die before him. Now, he said, his anger was directed at other Shiites.

An Iraqi soldier, he said, had shot Mustafa two days earlier as he approached a checkpoint in Sadr City, where Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army rule. Abu Abdullah blamed Sadr's Shiite rivals, who lead the Iraqi government.

"What do I feel inside me?" asked Abu Abdullah, dressed in black. "I want to do to them exactly what they did to my son, and even more."

In this volatile Shiite redoubt, animosity toward Prime Minister Nouri-al Maliki and his allies has deepened in the aftermath of Iraq's worst violence in months, threatening to escalate a conflict among Shiites that could further draw in U.S. troops.

Sadr's followers view a recent U.S.- and British-backed Iraqi government offensive in the southern port city of Basra as an attempt by their Shiite rivals to weaken Sadr's movement ahead of provincial elections later this year. Iraq's security forces, they say, are tools used against them by their rivals. Clashes erupted across southern Iraq and Baghdad, diminishing only after Sadr ordered his fighters to lay down their weapons.

But tensions remain high. On Sunday, fighting again broke out in Sadr City, leaving 11 dead and 55 injured as a joint U.S. and Iraqi military operation began. Maliki and other lawmakers issued a statement Sunday urging political parties to disband their militias or face being banned from the elections, an act clearly directed at Sadr.

Mahdi Army commanders and fighters spoke on Saturday of a military and political landscape starkly altered by the Basra offensive. They vowed revenge against Maliki and his Dawa party and against the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a powerful Shiite party led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a key U.S. ally and Sadr's main rival.

The hostilities highlighted how intra-sect struggles, after five years of war, are increasingly defining the nature of conflict in Iraq, as violence lessens between Sunnis and Shiites.

"Now, our fight is with Badr and Dawa, along with the Americans," said Abu Abdullah, a burly man with a rugged face, thick beard and stern voice. "They are bigger enemies" than the extremist Sunnis, he added.

On Saturday, U.S. Stryker armored vehicles and Iraqi Humvees cordoned off Sadr City. They blocked all roads, and no cars were allowed to enter or leave. U.S. combat helicopters and drones circled above. Unlike the rest of Baghdad, the sprawling district was still under curfew. This correspondent entered Sadr City on foot.

Inside, traffic bustled. The streets, brimming with people, appeared normal, save for the presence of U.S. tanks. But fresh slogans scrawled on walls spoke of the potential for upheaval. "Maliki is a coward and agent of Americans," read one. On another wall: "Badr and Dawa are thieves and killers."

Iraq's Shiites have long contested each other for the mantle of their community. Under Saddam Hussein, Hakim and Maliki fled, preferring to fight from exile. Sadr, the son of Iraq's most respected populist cleric, who was assassinated by Hussein's government in 1999, remained inside the country during the repression. That helped Sadr to gain credibility among impoverished Shiites, enhancing his power on Iraq's streets. His followers deeply resent that former Shiite exiles, whose power is derived largely from their American backers, now lead Iraq's government.

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