Are Sadr militias rearming in Iraq's south?
A US general said he hasn't ruled out the involvement of militias close to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in recent attacks in Iraq's south and says the movement is reasserting itself as a force in the area.
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Although Al Qaeda in Iraq was blamed by the Iraqi government for Monday’s violence, the organization has traditionally had little presence in the overwhelmingly Shiite south, where most attacks have been linked to power struggles between competing Shiite parties – some of them linked to Iran. US officials believe attacks on citizens have been designed to show that government security forces cannot maintain security.Skip to next paragraph
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“The location, the timing, and the type of target says to me it is political opportunism,” Brooks said of Monday’s attacks.
Sadr’s cease-fire in 2008 led to a splintering of his armed followers, with part of the group refusing to renounce violence. Although the Mahdi Army is used by many US officials as a general term for the Sadr militia, it has spun off into different groups with different agendas.
In Basra, despite strong political support for the Sadrists, particularly among the millions of poor, few would welcome a return to militia rule, which banned music, cigarette smoking, and women walking in the street in many of its strongholds. Hundreds of those who broke those bans were killed or tortured.
“We’re afraid of the return of armed groups, whatever they call themselves,” says Thair Mohammad, a Basra laborer who says many of his friends are followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.
Amin Qassim, a Basra University student, says there has been more of a Sadr presence since the elections.
“The places where they hold Friday prayers have been rebuilt and renovated and their numbers at the prayers are growing…. In their gatherings in their neighborhoods, they are talking of how they will return and punish all those who stood against them.... The return of the Mahdi Army is a thought that frightens many Basrawis,” he says.
The Sadr movement refuses to meet with US officials but McGurk says as a political entity, they share many of the same goals for Iraq – a strong central, nationalist government.
“They represent a significant mass of the population, particularly in the south,” he says. “What they can’t have and what most of the political leaders will not let them have is this Hezbollah-like entity on Iraqi soil.”
Ali al-Basri contributed reporting from Basra.
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