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Sadr Faction Threatens to Turn on Maliki Government

While Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met first with Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain on Monday and then with President Bush in Washington D.C. on Tuesday to much fanfare, a less heralded but possibly more significant showing was made in Baghdad as followers of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made their gravest threats yet against the Iraqi government. Occupying the grounds around the prime minister’s office with a sit-in, Sadr’s followers demanded that Maliki cancel his trip to Washington in protest against attacks on Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which has been blamed for the most gruesome attacks on Sunni civilians. U.S. and Iraqi troops have increased operations against members of the Mahdi Army and the Sadrists are responding by threatening to wage war on U.S. troops and, apparently for the first time, against the Iraqi government itself.

The president and prime minister (full text of press conference here) laid out their plan for taking Baghdad back from the spiral of violence through a plan which involves taking over and securing one sector at a time, restoring government services, empowering local police and then moving on to another sector of the city. The plan will involve an increase in American troops to Baghdad by pulling troops from the Sunni-dominated Anbar province and reserve troops from Kuwait, while adding an equal number of Iraqi troops (Washington Post, New York Times). ThreatsWatch will provide further coverage of this crucial operation as details unfold.

Meanwhile, Sadr’s followers in parliament pressed his case and made the gravest threats so far against the government. As reported in Al-Hayat, parliamentary leader Falah Shinaishal led a sit-in protest in front of Maliki’s office in Baghdad, demanding that he cancel his trip in protest over attacks on the Mahdi Army as well as U.S. support for Israeli military action in Lebanon. Sahib al-Amari, noted as a leader of the Sadrist faction, warned of direct conflict between “units of the Mahdi Army on the one hand and American and Iraqi forces on the other hand if the arrests and raids against the Mahdi Army by these forces do not halt.” Amari specifically pointed to “the occupying forces, with the support of the 37th Battalion in the Iraqi Army burned down a house in Sadr City and arrested an entire family.” Amari further stated that U.S. troops had attacked “the office of the martyr Sadr [likely a reference to Muqtada’s father] in Mahmudiya killing 10 guards and letting loose 49 prisoners who had been captured by the Sadr faction police.” The article quotes Amari as ending by “warning of a flood of fighting in the streets of Iraq between the Mahdi Army and the American troops along with the government troops who support them.”

While ThreatsWatch reported on Saturday that Sadr’s followers had walked out of parliament indefinitely, these comments represent a new escalation in the conflict, as Sadr has never threatened to turn against the government this way. He has always claimed to be following the senior religious authorities of Shia Iraq, yet the Grand Ayatollah Ali-Sistani and other authorities have continued to demand the disarming of the militias and it has become increasingly clear to all that he is ignoring them. Maliki’s government has been following Sistani’s counsel. And while Sadrists’ statements usually emphasize that they are fighting the United States, these comments mention more explicitly than usual the participation of Iraqi troops.

ThreatsWatch reported on Sunday that a ceasefire had been declared by a leading Sunni insurgent leader conditional upon Shia militias refraining from attacking Sunnis. The Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn reported on Tuesday that Baghdad was catching its breath as the ceasefire seemed to be holding Monday and Tuesday. The above noted article in Al-Hayat reported, however, that Sadr representative Riyadh al-Nuri said that “this matter (ceasefire) will not last if American troops continue their assaults.” Referring to Sunni attacks on Shia civilians, Nuri stated that “the terrorists engage in massacre and terrorize the Shia within earshot and under the sight of American and government troops.” Nuri specifically mentioned the killing of 14 of Sadr’s followers by American troops in a separate attack in Musib.

It may or may not be notable that the U.S. military press office in Iraq is not playing up the campaign against Sadr, and for operations against the Mahdi Army over the past two days merely mentions the capture of “six targeted insurgents, all of whom are believed to be involved in ‘death squad’ activities.” References to “death squads” usually refer to certain members of the Mahdi Army.

This escalation of tension between Sadr and the Iraqi government, as well as the additional threats against U.S. forces, is not necessarily a negative sign. It appears in fact to be a reaction against a much-needed U.S.-Iraqi campaign against the Mahdi Army which is the single greatest force driving Sunni Iraqis away from the government. At a time when Sunni insurgents have been indicating a willingness to cease fighting the government on terms, it is highly unlikely that they will actually follow through with a full cessation of hostilities as long as they are subject to attacks by Shia militias, especially that of the Sadr faction, which still has ministers in the government.