Iraq's Foggy War

Greg Bruno
Council on Foreign Relations
Monday, May 19, 2008 10:48 AM

Sorting out the victor from the vanquished in Iraq's internal skirmishes is proving increasingly difficult. A deal reached on May 10 (Voices of Iraq) between lawmakers loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and those allied with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki brought a wave of contradictory proclamations from the Western media punditry. McClatchy Newspapers called the deal to disarm the cleric's Mahdi Army in Sadr City a "surprising capitulation" sure to be hailed as a major win for Maliki's government. The Independent, meanwhile, declared Sadr "the great survivor of Iraqi politics." Attacks on U.S. forces days into the truce raises questions (NYT) about whether the deal will amount to anything in the end.

The cease-fire negotiated between the ruling United Iraqi Alliance and representatives of Sadr's political movement calls for Sadr's fighters in Sadr City to temporarily stand down to allow access to Iraqi forces. Government soldiers will be allowed to search Sadr City for weapons and fighters, albeit with a warrant (LAT). In return the ruling alliance is to cease raids, reopen roads, and increase humanitarian assistance. But as the Christian Science Monitor notes, the deal does not call for the permanent disarming of the Madhi militia, as Maliki has demanded, and only requires militants to keep weapons out of public view. University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole writes on his blog that such developments are like political déjà vu, in which Iraqi lawmakers live through the same day "over and over again."

Clashes in the sprawling Shiite district of Sadr City began in response to a March 25 raid on militias by Iraqi military forces in the southern city of Basra. In retaliation, Mahdi army fighters fired a barrage of rockets into the Green Zone in Baghdad, drawing the ire of the U.S. military. Statements and counterstatements have since clouded the aim of the clampdown. The United States continues to support Sadr's chief political and military rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, despite the group's ties to Tehran (ISN) and Washington's allegations of Iranian meddling in Iraqi security. Maliki, meanwhile, appears to have isolated the Sadrist movement in parliament and, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, "possibly won himself a measure of much-needed public support through his tough stance." Sadrists insist the siege of SadrCityis purely political ahead of October elections.

For Maliki, reining in Sadrist militias appears aimed at restoring legitimacy to his government -- crucial in the long run for reaching reform benchmarks that could eventually set in motion a U.S. troop drawdown. In a May 12 speech to parliament Maliki said his actions in Sadr City "have proven that we are neutral, not biased, that we did not take the side of this party or this sect against another" (Reuters). Then there is the question of Iran's goals. Like the cease-fire brokered in Basra in March (CNN), the recent deal in Sadr City has Iranian fingerprints (UPI). Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs for the Congressional Research Service, writes that Iran appears to lend support to all major Shiite political factions "and their armed militias" (PDF) in Iraq, making it increasingly difficult to discern what side Iran is really on (Economist). Some experts speculate Iran is backing all sides in an effort to keep Iraq's central government weak and U.S. forces busy.

As for the Sadrists, analysts such as Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute say they are on the ropes and may well be knocked out. But Sadr's followers have been counted out before. CFR Press Fellow Mohamad Bazzi argues it would be foolish (WashTimes) to exclude Sadr from the political process, as Maliki has suggested. The International Crisis Group concludes in a new analysis of the cleric's movement that Sadr's rising star suggests there is no military solution to what is fast becoming a political problem (PDF).

© 2008