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Sadr's Ties with Sunni Militants Go Sour

Iraqi politics continues its realignment as the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association (MSA) turns from viewing the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Sadriya movement as their natural allies among Iraqi Shia to renewed dialogue with the more moderate SCIRI, which is head of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance. One of the more interesting developments of 2005 was a kind of de facto alliance between the intensely anti-American MSA and the Sadriya. Yet over the past year, the MSA has gradually distanced itself further and further from foreign jihadists such as al-Qaeda and have at the same time come to blame Sadr’s Mahdi Army for both vigilante violence against Sunni militants and atrocities against Sunni civilians.

As reported in the international Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, MSA member ‘Asam al-Rawi blamed the failure of talks between the MSA and Shia leaders on the fact that militias had come to control some areas of Baghdad, an implicit reference to Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and al-Qaeda others. He then explicitly stated that this was the cause of the “spoiling of the close ties which had existed between the association and the Sadr faction.” Rawi was further quoted as saying that militia factions sought to destroy the reconciliation initiative of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, “calling on the necessity of the Sadr faction to recognize the initiative.” Al-Hayat went on to quote him saying that Maliki’s initiative had not yet succeeded, explicitly blaming the Shia militia.

The same article reports that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has succeeded in arranging a meeting between Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of SCIRI and Iraq’s most important non-office-holding Shia political figure, and Harith al-Dari, the general secretary of the MSA. SCIRI and the MSA have traded accusations over the past two years, with SCIRI recently claiming that the MSA had not broken its links with al-Qaeda (such links clearly existed from 2003 through part of 2005) while the MSA has accused SCIRI’s militia, the Badr Corps, of operating death squads out of the interior ministry. That Badr has not been implicated in recent atrocities, combined with the MSA’s disenchantment with Sadr, appears to be leading to this thawing of relations.

On a related point, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn reports that the National Reconciliation Committee, led by Akram al-Hakim, agreed upon four conferences to be held by the end of the year -

1) a conference of parties which have not yet joined the political process,
2) a conference of Shia and Sunni religious scholars which would take place in Jordan or Saudi Arabia,
3) a conference for civil society organizations, and
4) a conference for Iraq’s tribes.

Akram was quoted as saying that of the Sunni insurgent factions with which he was now discussing terms, one was an armed faction of major significance.

At the same time, President Talabani was quoted by Al-Hayat as saying that “Iraqi security forces will receive control of complete security responsibility” by the end of the current year, a very ambitious goal. The article quotes Prime Minister Maliki of asserting the same goal, but phrased such that Iraqi forces would receive primary responsibility over the entire country in stages with coalition forces having a secondary role, rather than Iraqis having complete security responsibility. Speaking of foreign troops, Maliki was quoted as saying that “their role is to help Iraqi forces… which will take over security responsibility in all the provinces without exception at the end of the current year by degrees.”

Despite the inability of the government to stop Sunni and Shia militants from sectarian killing, the present political realignment is giving Iraqi politics a new consensus which it has lacked up until now. The success or failure of this emerging “new center” will depend on the outcome of talks between Hakim, Dari and the factions they represent as well as the determination of Maliki’s government to fight the Mahdi Army. With Iraqi Sunni factions showing continued signs of willingness to come to terms, a united government would then be able to face down the remaining threat - the foreign jihadists, especially al-Qaeda in Iraq.