Nasr: Iraqi Prime Minister ‘Irrelevant’ in Shiite Power Struggle

Vali R. Nasr, a leading expert on Shiites, says the fighting in southern Iraq amounts to a power struggle between pro and anti-U.S. Shiite militias. The country’s Shiite prime minister, he says, is “irrelevant.”

March 26, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Vali R. Nasr, a leading expert on Shiite Muslims in the Middle East, says the fighting in southern Iraq amounts to a power struggle between pro- and anti-U.S. Shiite militias. He says the country’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is “completely irrelevant” in the conflict in the south. He notes that the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, an ally of the United States, is in direct competition with the Mahdi army headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, who has made anti-Americanism his rallying cry. “We should have expected that at some point fighting would break out,” Nasr says. “Iraq really doesn’t have a viable political mechanism for settling power struggles and it is also difficult to settle disagreements peacefully between groups armed to the teeth.”

There has been considerable fighting in and around Basra by the Shiite-led government against so-called Shiite militias. What’s behind this?

This was expected, because during the period of the “surge” there has been no political settlement and no resolution to the outstanding political problems in Iraq, merely a lull in the fighting. The fundamental issues—the balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and, within the Shiites, the balance of power between the two most powerful Shiite groups led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr—have been unresolved.

The Iraqis are now moving towards elections. And in the past six to seven months, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)—headed by Hakim—has moved closer to the United States. Its militiamen have gone under the banner of the Iraqi Security Forces. They are consolidating power with American backing and they have been gradually encroaching on Sadr’s territory.  Sadr and his Mahdi Army have been viewing the growing power of the Sunni Awakening Movement [a movement by Sunni tribal leaders, beginning in Anbar province in 2006, to oppose al-Qaeda and other extremists in Iraq] and the growing power of the Badr Brigade [militia of the ISCI] and ISCI on the other side, as a threat and an attempt to marginalize him.

Elections are when, in the fall?

There is talk of elections in the fall. That could be an occasion for Hakim and ISCI to formally consolidate their hold on southern Iraq. But to do that through the ballot box they have to downsize and downgrade the Mahdi Army and the Sadr movement beforehand. That is exactly what Muqtada al-Sadr through preventive action is trying to prevent from happening. The Sadrists understand that the United States has put so much stock on the success of the surge that it is quite vulnerable to even a minor perceptible uptick in violence in southern Iraq, which Muqtada is quite capable of visiting on the United States and its allies in southern Iraq.

So you think the United States is backing the Maliki government efforts to stamp down this Sadrist movement in the south?

Yes it is, although I think that [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki is completely irrelevant. The real show is between Hakim and Sadr. Hakim and his Badr corps have been allies of the United States in the south; since January when the surge began, they have taken over a larger number of governorates. They rule out of Najaf. Their Badr corps has been joining the Iraqi Security Forces. Maliki is not in control of Shiite politics in the south and that is the real prize right now that Sadr and Hakim are fighting for. Maliki is just the figurehead, the official representative of the Iraqi government.

What is Iran’s role in this? Does Iran have a favorite between Hakim and Sadr?

Well, Iran has backed both of them and has supported a truce between them that was signed last year. The Iranians encouraged the two of them to put the fighting aside and not to fight one another at a time when the larger issue of the fate of Iraq was still out there. However, Iran has only limited influence and ultimately Muqtada al-Sadr will not sit by idly as Hakim and the United States begin to downgrade his forces and ultimately move to crush him, regardless of what Iran says.

On the other hand, one might say that Iran also encourages Sadr to disrupt the stability of southern Iraq because its relations with the United States are growing more tense and Iran ultimately would like to see the United States leave Iraq. The lull in the fighting, a sort of truce, which Iran contributed to by holding Muqtada down, may no longer be in Iran’s interest right now. It’s difficult to see how the Iranians are calculating this. They may be supportive of Muqtada raising the heat, not completely but somewhat, to put pressure on the United States. On the other hand, it might very well be that the Iranians are not able to totally control what happens next door, that they are able to influence the decisions that Sadr and Hakim make but they cannot completely control them.

We have to wait and see as this thing unfolds whether the Iranians will act to restrain the two sides or not. When the British moved out of Basra, it was argued that the Iranians would not try to control Basra but they did. For a very long period of time, the governor was very close to Iran, and the various militias maintained a truce in Basra. In fact the Iranians touted the relative stability of Basra as an indication of their ability to influence the situation in Iraq. It is possible the Iranians would use this issue of this escalation of tensions in the south as a way of reminding the United States that they are very relevant in southern Iraq and their value to stability in Iraq should not be taken for granted.

Why is the United States so close to Hakim’s party? After all, Hakim spent so much time in Iran. You would think the United States would be worried about the Iranian influence.

The United States doesn’t have a lot of options in Iraq. The Shiites that the United States wanted to be aligned with proved to be completely irrelevant, such as Ahmed Chalabi and Ayad Allawi. The United States has ended up, essentially, dealing with groups that it did not originally want to deal with. Not only Hakim on the Shiite side, but the United States also vowed that it would never deal with people who killed Americans or had American blood on their hands. That is, until it realized there was no one else to talk to on the Sunni side and that if you wanted to bring stability you had to deal with the very people who are shooting at you. Hakim actually has not played a very overtly pro-Iranian role.

From the very beginning he dealt with the United States directly, joined the original governing council that was set up, participated in elections. The Badr corps never targeted the United States. Hakim has also been willing to join the U.S.-built authority in Iraq by allowing his militia to join the Iraqi Security Forces and his party members to join the government. He has traveled to the United States. His son has traveled to the United States. He met with President Bush. I think what Hakim would like is for the United States and Iran to essentially bridge the gap between them. Hakim was very instrumental in persuading Iran’s supreme leader to publicly endorse talks with the United States over Iraq. It was the first time that Iran’s supreme leader, after twenty-seven or twenty-eight years, publicly said that Iran would talk with the United States. These talks which eventually were held in Baghdad were Hakim’s doing.

Hakim understands that as a Shiite politician he needs Iran backing.  Within the larger Middle East only Iran would support Shiite power in Iraq. He cannot antagonize Iran and he doesn’t want to turn on Iran, but at the same time he wants to build Shiite authority and his own authority with the support of the United States, because he is weaker than Muqtada al-Sadr without American backing within Iraq. In some ways Hakim is sort of stuck in a dilemma, meaning that the two pillars of support in Hakim’s eyes for Shiite power are Iran and the United States and those are antagonistic toward one another.

Within the Shiite camp, al-Sadr has also been currying favor with Iran but unlike Hakim, Sadr views the United States as the enemy. So for him, only Iran is the outside source for support and Sadr does provide Iran with other options. He also complicates Hakim’s ability to consolidate power in southern Iraq very significantly.

Is it possible that the U.S.-Hakim alliance can crush Sadr in Baghdad as well as in Basra?

Nothing in Iraq will happen easily. It’s going to be extremely bloody and it’s going to be extremely difficult. Whatever unfolds, if the cease-fire doesn’t hold, it will make the outcome of the surge look completely different from the way in which it has been interpreted in the United States right now as an unmitigated success in bringing stability to Iraq, reducing the number of causalities for the Americans, and the number of deaths for Iraqis. If the calculus of the conflict changes even slightly in the south then the Iraqi scene can look very different, very quickly.

Everything is doable but it’s going to be extremely difficult and extremely bloody. The Mahdi Army is estimated to be upwards of fifty thousand and the movement itself is comprised of one or two million people. The fighting would have to happen in large, urban areas. Crushing Sadr’s movement is going to take a lot of time and a lot of resources and will involve a lot of blood.

Are you surprised by the fighting between two major Shiite groups?

They have attacked one another before. Just last year, the Mahdi Army soldiers had a clash in Karbala with Iraqi Security Forces, which essentially were all Shiite militiamen who had been integrated into the Iraqi Army. It was embarrassing to Muqtada; it was after that that he asked his army to stand down. The Mahdi Army is accused of assassinating a number of ISCI governors over the last several months and also to have assassinated a number of religious leaders in the south. This time it’s coming after a period of lull and cease-fire in the south, when the Americans had gotten used to having the kind of stability that’s been in Iraq for a while.

We should have expected that at some point fighting would break out. It’s only natural. You have two powerful forces and a struggle of power between them over who controls the south. It had to be settled somehow. Iraq really doesn’t have a viable political mechanism for settling power struggles. It is also difficult to settle disagreements peacefully between groups armed to the teeth that have tens of thousands of militiamen under their control.

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