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Sadr reins in Shiite militiamen, sends mixed signals

Battles continued to rage Sunday between the radical cleric's Mahdi Army and Iraqi and US forces.

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In his interview Saturday, Sadr demanded the release of one of the founders of the special groups, Qais al-Khazali, now in US custody along with his brother and an operative from Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement and militia in Lebanon. They were all captured by US-led coalition troops in Basra one year ago on charges of setting up the nucleus for a Hizbullah-like organization in Iraq. Sadr claimed that all factions were now under his control.

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"Yes some people split from us momentarily but they are all coming back now to their dad," he said.

A similar assessment was offered Thursday by a ranking operative in the militia based in Baghdad. He said that Mr. Khazali's decision to assert himself at Sadr's expense had initially angered him but that now all these rifts have been supposedly healed and that Sadr has learned how to better divide up responsibilities.

As to his relationship with Iran, Sadr was more evasive. He said he told Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, recently that he will not be "your political and military extension," while pointing out to some "corrective" measures that it needed to take in Iraq, perhaps in a suggestion that it needed to rethink its long-standing relationship with his bitter rivals ISCI and Badr more to his favor.

"I mentioned a few things that must be done to correct Iran's situation in Iraq. Iran must have a new agenda in Iraq," said Sadr, in his interview with Ghassan bin Jedou, Al Jazeera's Beirut bureau chief, who has impeccable contacts with both Iran's and Hizbullah's leadership.

Ghassan Attiyah, a London-based analyst with intimate knowledge of Shiite affairs, said Iran will do everything in its power to support Sadr and make sure the Mahdi Army is not defeated by the Americans or its rivals because doing so at this stage at least "would hand the Americans a victory."

The International Crisis Group had in fact warned the US in a February report not to take advantage of Sadr's decision to pause the activities of his militia in August in order to "deal the Sadrists a mortal blow," because this will squander the gains of the surge and plunge Iraq into "another explosion of violence."

Mr. Attiyah says ISCI and Badr may have succeeded in drawing the US into their struggle with Sadr, who has always been someone very difficult for the Americans to deal with, or even understand.

In fact, Sadr joked during the interview that perhaps the Americans may be the only ones confused with his "tactics," namely that his freeze in August was largely an opportunity to streamline his militia, which had been linked to the worst episodes of sectarian killing and cleansing when Sunnis and Shiites were battling each other in 2006 and 2007.

Attiyah said that by backing ISCI and Badr – and refusing to seriously engage Sadr and even fighting him – the Americans are replicating their policies in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories of refusing to deal with hard-line entities Hizbullah and Hamas that maintain vast popular support.

"The democracy proposed by the Americans in the region and now in Iraq is like telling people you can have a car as long as it's a Model-T Ford," he says.