Friday, December 22, 2006

NYT Reports: Al-Sistani May Support New Iraqi Coalition Government

The New York Times is reporting that Iraq's senior Shi'i cleric, Grand Ayatullah 'Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani [RIGHT] may support a proposal for the formation of a new coalition government that would bring together Shi'i and Sunni Arab parties (religious and secular) with Kurdish parties, nominally under the banner of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Shi'i-led political bloc that won the most parliamentary seats in January's elections. Despite his initial success in steering Shi'i political mobilization in post-Ba'th Iraq, al-Sistani's influence has seemingly decreased over the past two years as sectarian violence has skyrocketed between Sunni and Shi'i Arab militias who are targeting each other and civilians on the other side. The new proposal reportedly is designed to marginalize Jama'at al-Sadr al-Thani (Movement of al-Sadr the Second), the socio-political movement headed by Muqtada al-Sadr [LEFT], which controls 30 parliamentary seats and 6 cabinet posts and ministries.

After the February 22 bombing that heavily damaged the Shi'i al-Askari Shrine in Samarra, Shi'i militias began to actively engage Sunni Arab and Ba'thist militias and al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers. However, in addition to battling rival militias, Shi'i paramilitaries have also engaged in acts of violence (kidnapping, torture, murder) against Sunni Arab civilians to avenge similar attacks by Sunni and Salafi Arab militants. In the Pentagon's recent report on the Iraq conflict Shi'i militias were identified as being responsible for the most deaths during the past year, marking the first time that Shi'i groups have outperformed (for lack of a more suitable word) Sunni Arabs and Ba'thists in carrying out attacks.

Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia [RIGHT] is routinely blamed for being behind most of the Shi'i attacks on Sunnis but evidence suggests that former Mahdi commanders may be largely responsible. Two months ago, 41 Mahdi commanders were publicly expelled from the militia for engaging in criminal activities and many have formed their own militias or criminal gangs. Common criminal gangs are also reportedly using the Mahdi Army name despite having no connections to al-Sadr or Jama'at al-Sadr al-Thani. Among the most infamous of these militia leaders is Abu Deraa, a sadistic former Mahdi commander who is known for torturing his victims with drills before murdering them. Several independent Shi'i leader such as Shaykh Mahmoud Hassani al-Sarkhi, who heads a growing political movement, are even more vehemently anti-Iranian than al-Sadr.
Violence committed by members of the Badr Corps [LEFT], the paramilitary wing of Majlis al-A'la lil Thaura al-Islamiyya fil Iraq (Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution-SCIRI), receives far less attention than that allegedly committed by the Mahdi Army and breakaway factions. The political alliance between SCIRI, headed by 'Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush is probably the reason for the silence on the activities of the Badr Corps. Al-Hakim, once critical of the U.S. government, has recast himself as a key U.S. ally and is an active powerbroker in the new Iraqi government.

Allegations that al-Sadr is an Iranian agent are also unfounded. Muqtada made his name even before the fall of Saddam Husayn as a vocal proponent for an Iraqi Arab Shi'i leadership for the Iraqi Shi'a community. His father, Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr [LEFT], who was assassinated in 1999 by Ba'thist agents, also called for an Iraqi Arab Shi'i leadership which led to tensions between himself and al-Sistani. Muqtada has also been the key leader blocking attempts by SCIRI and the majority Shi'i-led UIA bloc to partition Iraq into three autonomous regions: an oil-rich Kurdistan in the north; an impoverished Sunni Arab center, and an oil-rich Shi'i south.

SCIRI, which was founded in Iran in 1982 by exiled Iraqi Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim with support from Iranian supreme leader Grand Ayatullah Ruhullah Khumayni, has a long history of ties to revolutionary Iran and maintains a close relationship with that country to this day. If any Iraqi Shi'i organization has close ties with Iran, it's SCIRI and not Jama'at al-Sadr al-Thani. However, it's not in U.S. or Iraqi government interests to alienate SCIRI and 'Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim [RIGHT] , so their ties to Iran do not receive a large amount of "official" attention.

Prime Minister al-Maliki, a Shi'i, has been an ineffectual Iraqi leader at best and is clearly unwilling and perhaps incapable of challenging Shi'i militias, both the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps . Al-Maliki's party, Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiyyah (Party of Islamic Call), is reportedly balking at joining a new coalition government that does not include al-Sadr's party since they fear that it's a precursor to replacing the prime minister. Al-Maliki currently relies on the political support of the al-Sadr movement's 30 parliament members and six cabinet ministers, which explains his reluctance to engage them.
Iraq needs a strong-willed prime minister who is willing to engage not only Sunni and Salafi Arab and Ba'thist militants but also Shi'i militias such as the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps. Al-Maliki [LEFT] isn't that kind of prime minister and he should be replaced quickly through the political process. Shi'i militias, whether they be the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps, or Mahdi offshoots should be reigned in or disarmed if they prove unwilling to halt attacks on civilians. Sunni and Ba'thist Arab groups unwilling to enter the political process need to be fully suppressed and Salafi militants who are unlikely to halt violence against civilians need to be crushed.

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