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Sadrists, Insurgency Still Stalk Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: April 12, 2007

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Shiites are up in arms about the U.S. occupation and the Sunnis, even former sympathizers of the insurgency, appear to be cooperating with U.S. and Iraqi security forces. That is the latest development in the topsy-turvy world of Iraqi politics. A rally of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the holy city of Najaf, stage-managed by Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite cleric, underscores the growing resentment (NYT) many Shiites have toward the U.S. occupation.

Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, has remained quiet since the “surge” of U.S. forces into Baghdad began earlier this year. Sadr, who was not present at the demonstration but is believed to be holed up in Iran, called the United States “your arch enemy.” His ability to mobilize such a large demonstration indicates the young cleric’s continued influence (PBS) over the situation in Iraq, as well as Iraqi politics. Loyalists to Sadr, who control roughly thirty seats in parliament, pulled out (WashTimes) of the government to protest the security crackdown. U.S. officials commended the nonviolent demonstration but privately expressed concern about Shiite nationalism taking root in Najaf and being stoked throughout southern Iraq. Diwaniyah, a town southeast of the capital, recently witnessed a spike (TIME) in militia activity, as Shiite-versus-Shiite violence claimed sixty lives.

Experts, journalists, and military onlookers marvel at the change underfoot in Baghdad but arrive at different conclusions. Johns Hopkins University’s Fouad Ajami, an early proponent of the war, tells NPR’s Morning Edition there is a “tremendous sense of optimism and hope in this security plan,” but says that “Sunnis have lost the battle for Baghdad” and will admit so privately. The trouble, says Ajami, is many Sunnis have fled Iraq and those remaining, unlike Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds, “are not represented in government by people truly reflective of themselves.”  

The sectarian bloodshed that is a hallmark of the past year’s war narrative has not vanished but diminished in scope, according to a new report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Last month, murders and executions were down by over 50 percent from the previous month, say U.S. military officials. Reprisal attacks are now less common, and Baghdad seems, on par, safer than before the surge. “The cause of this violence is not an incurable enmity between Sunnis and Shiites,” writes Samir Shakir Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, in the Wall Street Journal. “It is terrorists' violence that has ignited these flames.”

But Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times says in this new CFR.org Podcast that the violence has just moved from the city center to the suburban “belts” around Baghdad, what she calls the “squirt effect.” For example, attacks against U.S. forces are up 70 percent in Diyala province, northwest of Baghdad. With the number of massive suicide bombs up in recent months, she says it’s only a matter of time before the Shiite militias retaliate and take up arms again against Sunni militants. “The question is: How long will Sadr tolerate sitting out quietly while Sunni attacks continue?” she asks.

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