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Feelers from Sadr's Stronghold

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
January 26, 2007

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Schools and mosques, homes and government offices—all are fair targets under the new U.S.-Iraqi military plan to secure Baghdad and Anbar Province. "There will be no safe place in Iraq for terrorists," promised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But it remains to be seen whether his predominantly Shiite security forces will be willing to target Sadr City, a stronghold of Shiite militias.

There are some signs of new vigor in dealing with the militias. The U.S. military has already arrested hundreds of militants (LAT), including a top lieutenant of the Mahdi Army—the militia of the anti-U.S. cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr—who stands accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings against Iraqi security forces. Moreover, the mayor of Sadr City reportedly reached a deal (AP) with local militia and religious leaders to keep arms off the streets and rid the slum of sectarian violence. His motivation was to prevent U.S.-Iraqi forces from targeting Sadr City in their latest crackdown. The neighborhood acts as the Mahdi Army’s de facto headquarters. In 2004, U.S. soldiers fought a series of pitched battles with the Mahdi Army in the southern city of Najaf.

A full-scale assault into Sadr City, home to 2 million mostly poor Shiites, may trigger a bloodbath for both U.S. forces and Iraqis, some military analysts fear. That could play to Sadr's advantage, says defense consultant Gary Anderson in the Washington Post, speculating on the strategy of his Mahdi Army. "Waging a stand-up battle could create such chaos and so many disturbing images of casualties," he writes, "that the American public and Congress will demand an immediate withdrawal." From the Americans' perspective, Michael Yon, a web journalist embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq, says, “We will lose a lot of people taking on the militias, but we should either take them on or pack up and go home.”

Some might draw encouragement from the fact that Sadr, who controls over thirty seats in parliament, recently indicated he would end his two-month boycott (AP) of political participation he began in response to Maliki’s November meeting with President Bush. Experts say the move may signal an easing of tensions among Iraq’s warring Shiite factions. It also may allow Sadr to soften his position and restore discipline within his 60,000-strong militia, whose members appear to be splintering. He reportedly told his flock to maintain a low profile ahead of the U.S.-Iraqi security operation into Baghdad. A lawmaker associated with Sadr even announced his parliamentary bloc would lend its support (RFE/RL) to Maliki’s security plan.

If the U.S. military opens up a new front against Shiite militias, some fear this will only further strain relations between Washington and Baghdad. Some Iraqi Shiites were outraged (The Age) by a section of President Bush’s State of the Union speech, in which he compared Shiite militias to al-Qaeda extremists. Another sign of possible tensions was outlined by regional expert Gary G. Sick in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman: the development of an informal U.S. alliance with Sunni Arab states in the region aimed at checking Shiite expansion. Although aimed primarily at Iran, an unintended consequence of Washington’s Middle East policy may be the alienation of Iraq’s Shiite-led government at a crucial time in its transition.  

If doubts exist among Iraqi lawmakers about the efficacy of President Bush’s plan to secure Baghdad, there are even greater doubts among U.S. lawmakers in Congress. The Senate Armed Services Committee easily approved the new commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted twelve to nine against the troop surge plan (SFChron), declaring the escalation not in America’s “national interest."

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