Iraq's Shiite political fissures widen

The Sadrist pullout from Iraq's government highlights a broader political fight within the leading political coalition that is playing out on the street and in parliament.

Monday's departure of six government cabinet ministers from the Iraqi government will indeed erode support for American-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The ministers represented radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, on whom Mr. Maliki relied to take the top government post in Iraq.

But the withdrawal of the Sadrists – who left in protest over the prime minister's refusal to set a date for the departure of US troops – highlights more troubling developments: widening fissures within the country's ruling coalition and a brewing Shiite fight for supremacy that threatens to unravel the leading political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).

"The fragmentation of the Shiites, and the fights that are taking place, are much more serious than what gets talked about publicly," says Hosham Dawod, a Paris-based Iraqi academic and author.

To win these fights – that have on occasion taken the form of armed confrontation and threaten to do so again – leading Shiite political figures are rallying popular support by clutching on big emotional causes.

In the case of Mr. Sadr, it's taking on the US military presence. For the rival Fadhila Islamic party, it's confronting Iranian influence and meddling. And for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) led by the influential Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, it's purging all remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Adding further complications is Iran's suspected support for both politics and violence, the role of the powerful tribes in this struggle especially in the south, and the emergence of well-armed Shiite splinter groups, some of which thrive on extortion and protection money.

The stakes are immense. The political battle is about control. Each Shiite party wants power in Baghdad, the so-called mid-Euphrates provinces, Najaf and Karbala, which are home to Shiite Islam's holiest sites, and the southern province Basra with its vital oil resources and maritime facilities.

"The only thing that [the parties] agree on is remaining in power and confronting one another. There is a negative meeting point, and that's not enough to build a government," says Mr. Dawod.

More than two years since their ascent to the helm for the first time in Iraq's modern history, Shiites have proven that the UIA is little more than a pragmatic marriage of convenience. So far, they have failed to transcend differences and reach out to the country's other communities, mainly the embattled Sunni Arabs.

"There is a great failure by the government," says Dawod. "And unfortunately, because of the situation in Iraq now, this failure does not lead to an alternative government coming to power but more chaos."

But Faleh Jabar, another Iraq expert, says he believes Maliki, who is under tremendous pressure from Washington to deliver on a number of benchmarks that are primarily aimed at promoting reconciliation and resuscitating the economy, may survive the withdrawal of the Sadrists. They held six cabinet posts: health, transport, agriculture, tourism, civil society, and provincial affairs.

"It's possible if the Kurds and [SCIRI] go on supporting him," says Mr. Jabar, director of the Beirut-based Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies. "And if the Sunnis feel that Maliki is dealing with security in a fair-handed manner."

Jabar explains that more Sunnis could gravitate toward Maliki if they genuinely feel that he is targeting militias implicated in sectarian killing, namely Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Sadrist lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie said in an interview Tuesday that the movement has no intention of quitting parliament altogether. He reiterated what he announced on Sadr's behalf the day before: the main reasons for leaving the government were "the heightened sectarianism in running the country's affairs" and Maliki's refusal on the timetable for US withdrawal.

In a statement Tuesday, Maliki thanked the Sadrists for their stance on sectarianism but reminded them that they were contradicting what they had previously agreed to as part of the UIA's political program, which says no timetable would be announced before Iraqi forces were fully ready to take on security responsibilities.

Among the worst sectarian offenders have been the Sadrist-controlled ministries of health and transport. Both stand accused of operating death squads. Many of Maliki's allies and the US had pushed him in December to reshuffle the government to push out the Sadrists after they boycotted both the government and parliament for two months before returning in February.

But beyond the political jostling, analysts say, the ultimate fate of the Maliki government may depend on the outcome of the fight for power unfolding on the ground. "There is a real war going on between Shiites in Basra, Diwaniyah, Karbala, and Najaf, and it's a mess," says Jabar.

He says Sadr's move Monday, as well as recent demonstrations, was simply a reaction to moves to dismantle his military capabilities, an effort being pursued cautiously by US forces, with the backing of Sadr's nemesis Hakim, who controls his own paramilitary group, the Badr Brigades.

In fact, several sources confirm now that a national police unit loyal to Badr was drafted from the city of Hilla into the deadly battles in Diwaniyah earlier this month between elements of Sadr's Mahdi Army and US and Iraqi forces.

Elsewhere, Shiite violence has erupted in even more unpredictable ways. The Interior Ministry said over the weekend that a bombing Saturday at a bus station in Karbala near sacred shrines that killed at least 50 people was the work of "renegade local elements and the Warriors of Heaven cult."

The government had accused fighters from the same cult of cooperating with Al Qaeda in January to unleash havoc in Najaf to fulfill a messianic vision. This prompted a fight between alleged members of this cult and US and Iraqi troops.

While the story of the cult may be plausible, Dawod says it may have been a theory promoted by the government to mask a bitter local fight.

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