Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Marionettes on Weakening Cables

Evidence is mounting that Moqtada al-Sadr is losing his grip on certain factions within his rather sizable Mahdi Army militia. As I posted last month, there have been reports of splinter groups turning away from Sadr's leadership due to his increasing moderation - perhaps the result of his official political role (though this does call into question competing definitions of "moderation"). Still, it seems that at least for some, Sadr just isn't hardcore enough anymore.

By some accounts, these splinter groups are under greater influence from Iran, and are prone to engage in criminal activities, as well as other more confrontational engagements. This view is held by Nibras Kazimi, who also has a name(s) for these renegade elements:

The “Mahdists” are the part of Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army that no longer listens to him. They are infiltrated and run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. They are also responsible for the vast proportion of the reprisal killings conducted against Sunnis, as well as the recurrent confrontations with Coalition troops. The “Mahdists” call themselves the mummehidoon, literally “those preparing for the advent of the Mahdi,” or the equivalent of the Messiah is Shi'a Islam.

There is also speculation that these factions were responsible for the recent outbreak of violence in Amara between putative Mahdi Army members, and those of SCIRI's Badr Corp militia. In support of this theory, it is noted that Moqtada himself was pleading for calm and a cessation of violence from the onset of the fighting. His instructions, though, were not heeded with any type of urgency or discipline - fueling speculation of his deteriorating command structure.

Despite the damning nature of these appearances, the possibility that Sadr is creating distance between himself and the actions of a select cadre of fighters in order to maintain plausible deniability for their extreme actions cannot be dismissed out of hand. It would be convenient, after all, for him to have such a rogue group, whose thuggish actions would not be laid at his doorstep, but who could do the dirty work that someone in his position might require.

As usual, the intrigue in Iraq is as opaque as a tar pit.

In related news, according to Juan Cole, US forces seem to believe that one such disloyal Mahdi Army unit is responsible for the recent kidnapping of a US soldier in Baghdad:

Apparently [US forces] believe that a unit of the Mahdi Army kidnapped a GI, for whom they are conducting a manhunt. The US is seeking rogue guerrilla commander Abu Deraa, who has broken with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Nevertheless, the response has been of a wide-netted variety, not narrowly targeted at marginal players. In order to aid the hunt for the missing soldier (Ahmed Qusay Al-Ta’i) US military personnel set up roadblocks, barriers and check points around Sadr City, and proceeded to conduct searches of the inhabitants and their domiciles. This large scale operation would seem to be, at least in some ways, inconsistent with the view that the kidnapping was the action of a small fringe group. Then again, assuming adherence to counterinsurgency best practices as a premise is a risky endeavor.

In response to this self-described "siege," Sadr and his constituents have reacted strongly with threats of protests, strikes and worse. On the other hand, Sadr doesn't appear compelled to move against the supposed rogue factions responsible for the kidnapping (possibly out of fear of losing more street cred. if he were to appear to cave in to American interests in turning over "good" Shiites, or because he is not as removed from the underlying action as some would claim).

Prime Minister Maliki has responded to the objections of his powerful coaltion partner by calling on US forces to abandon their Sadr City-based cordon-and-search efforts. US forces have complied. This, once again, highlights the almost impossible task that both US forces, and Maliki's government, face in confronting and disbanding the militias. Whether or not Maliki would prefer to do away with the Mahdi Army, his latitude to act is severely constrained by the political exigencies of maintaining the cohesiveness of the UIA coalition (as well as the fear of the sheer number of committed Sadr supporters that might cause unrest in the wake of such provocative acts). US forces are in a similar quandry, with a democratically elected Iraqi government giving out orders based on its own internal concerns, and US troops stretched thin trying to keep down the Sunni-based insurgencies.

There are compelling arguments both ways about Maliki's intentions vis-a-vis Sadr and the Mahdi Army, yet I have recently been speculating that Maliki (and Dawa) and SCIRI have been feeling a little uncomfortable with the popularity of their feisty coalition partner and have been taking some subtle steps toward containing him. Clearly, the US favors this route. While Maliki would best be served by concealing - to the extent possible - his role in attempting to move against Sadr, his act has appeared, shall we say, a little too believable lately. Again, a confounding situation.

Either way, the potential for greater intra-Shiite fighting, and/or more battles between the Mahdi Army and US forces, remains a distinct possibility - whether those elements of the Mahdi Army are under Sadr's direct control or not. The lawlessness remains, and the competition for territory and resources is heating up regardless. In such a setting, power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Even one hidden in your pocket.

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