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Sadr Plans Million Militant March in Response to US-Iraqi Operation

On Friday, ThreatsWatch reported on a U.S.-Iraqi joint operation against the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr in Sadr City, Baghdad. At the time it appeared that the goal of the operation was to capture a member of the Mahdi Army who was alleged to be the leader of a death squad. Now it seems that it had a broader goal - the rescue of the Sunni legislator Tayseer al-Mashadani, whose abduction at the end of last week caused the largest Sunni party in parliament to withdraw from the government.

This allegation was reported in Al-Hayat on Sunday (“Moqtada al-Sadr is Gathering a Million People to Samarra the Coming Week”), which also reported that Sadr is planning to have a million of his followers march to Samarra and rebuild shrines to two Shia martyrs which had been damaged earlier in the year. According to the same article, the Fadhila Party, another Shia party which has worked uncomfortably with the leadership of the ruling United Iraq Alliance, harshly criticized the United States for undertaking the operation. Furthermore, there appeared to be a rift between the defense and interior ministries. While Al-Hayat reported that sources in the Defense Ministry affirmed that the anti-Sadr operation was approved by the government, the same was denied by sources in the Interior Ministry, which alleged that the U.S. co-opted Iraqi forces for the operation, and that it had not been authorized. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has not spoken out on the issue. This apparent conflict may be explained by the fact that while the interior minister is a Shia (Jawad al-Bolani), the defense minister is Sunni (Abd al-Qader Muhammad al-Mifarji).

Sadr’s militiamen responded in smaller numbers but in a much deadlier manner on Sunday, rampaging through a Sunni neighborhood, murdering dozens of individuals after identifying them as Sunni. This follows reports in the Arab media of an exchange of retaliatory attacks on Sunni and Shia mosques in Baghdad at the beginning of the weekend. The head of the Sunni Waqf Office, Shaikh Ahmad abd al-Ghafur, said that “Baghdad will burn” if the Shia militias are not reigned in.

Fortunately for the government, each week brings new indications that the domestic Iraqi insurgency is running out of steam. As reported in Al-Hayat and Kul Iraq, between 15 to 20 insurgent groups have indicated a willingness to negotiate terms. Secretary of State for National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim was quoted as saying that they suspected that some of those contacting the government may be from the same groups, so the total number was an estimate. He also said that the seven insurgent factions who had forcefully rejected the plan may represent a smaller number as it was not confirmed that the seven contacts were from different organizations. The Al-Hayat article noted that Hakim also opened the door to reconsideration of the government’s debaathification law.

The ideological battle between the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Sadr has heated up, and is focused now on the terms of the reconciliation plan. Sadr’s announced claim that a “million” of his followers would march on the holy city of Samarra, noted above, seems to be part of this struggle. A recent article in Al-Hayat highlighted this, reporting on the differing responses to Maliki’s amnesty plan by Sistani and Sadr. According to the article, Shaikh Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala’i, a spokesman for the Grand Ayatollah, endorsed the reconciliation plan unconditionally, while Sadr said that the plan had “flaws” and that it could only be acceptable if the withdrawal of American troops was included, any reconciliation with Baathists was rejected, and the demand that militias be disbanded be removed. All three of these conditions alone might be enough to drive an inseparable wedge between Sadr and the government, but this is especially true of the latter - rejecting disarmament of the militias - after so many killings by Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Notably, SCIRI, the lead faction within the government’s ruling coalition, is now alleging that the Association of Muslim Scholars, a relatively moderate and very influential Sunni theologians association, had ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq. As reported in Al-Hayat on Saturday, SCIRI spokesmen were alleging that evidence found after the death of Abu Musab Zarqawi demonstrated that the Sunni theologians had maintained close ties with Zarqawi. This may be significant because while the Sunni scholars have consistently opposed the United States, they have at least condemned the intentional killing of Shia Iraqis by Zarqawi.