Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Look Who's Back....Again

It appears that - yet again - the UIA was able to avert an internal fragmentation as the bloc of legislators headed by Moqtada al-Sadr returned to Parliament today. If you recall, this is the second time Sadr has split with the Iraqi government in a noisy public display. It is also the second time he has come back. Each time the reaction to the schism was exaggerated.

Despite the tense back and forth between Maliki and Sadr that played out in a war of words over the past couple of weeks (to go along with increased fighting between the Mahdi Army on one side and SIIC/Iraqi government troops and US forces on the other), Sadr's Current and Maliki's government have been making nice in recent days.

In other news, Al-Hayat reported on the developments of the latest feud between Prime Minister al-Maliki and the Sadrist Current. According to the paper, Sadrist officials had claimed that al-Maliki “submitted an apology (to the Current), admitting that his statements (against the Sadrist Current) were erroneous.” As a result, Sadrists continued, their organization is preparing to end its boycott of the parliament.

Shortly afterwards, a Maliki advisor denied to the media that the Prime Minister had apologized to the Current. In any case, al-Hayat predicted, the Sadrists may return soon to the floor of the parliament, the decision was made –on principle – the paper said, after an “important” meeting in Basra joining the high cadres of the organization.

While Maliki denies that he issued the apology (most likely to placate the Bush administration), there have been other indications that the suspended alliance has resumed in earnest.

One of al-Maliki's close advisers, Shiite lawmaker Hassan al-Suneid, bristled over the American pressure, telling The Associated Press that "the situation looks as if it is an experiment in an American laboratory (judging) whether we succeed or fail."

He sharply criticized the U.S. military, saying it was committing human rights violations and embarrassing the Iraqi government through such tactics as building a wall around Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah and launching repeated raids on suspected Shiite militiamen in the capital's slum of Sadr City.

He also criticized U.S. overtures to Sunni groups in Anbar and Diyala provinces, encouraging former insurgents to join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. "These are gangs of killers," he said. [emphasis added]

Once again, Sadr's brief, self-imposed Parliamentary exile has served the dual purpose of clarifying the stakes for all parties involved, and buttressing Sadr's anti-government bona fides (a nice reputation to be augmenting when the government in question is so unpopular - especially when you also get to participate in and reap the spoils of said government). With the US forces pursuing a new strategy of arming Sunni militants, it is understandable that the Shiite bloc is reconsidering the extent to which it wants to alienate and target Sadr and his rather sizable militia.

Sadr, for his part, will likely seek a bounty for his cooperation - along with some level of agreement on the cessation of the violence targeting his cadres. Hence, the reference by Maliki's aide to the human rights violations being committed pursuant to raids on Sadr's stronghold.

The underlying symbiotic dynamic between the various Shiite players is why I generally don't get too excited about rumors of Sadr forming alternative political blocs with Sunni ex-Baathists and Allawi, or of Maliki and the rest of the UIA forming their own alternative blocs that exclude Sadr. The UIA needs Sadr, and Sadr needs the UIA. Even if they each try to occasionally outmaneuver the other, gain leverage and then deploy countermeasures. Even if they might eventually war with each other for contested power and wealth.

Fighting such an internecine battle now would be premature and self-destructive, and the recent US turn toward the Sunnis has made Sadr more valuable than ever. As Swopa noted:

If the American military is willing to battle Sunni guerrillas and help arm a Shiite-dominated military/police force, then the Shiite government is amenable to us hanging around. If we're going after Shiite militias and giving guns and money to Sunni tribal militias (including insurgents), then it's not surprising that they're a lot less enthusiastic.

As always, the continuing Shiite alliance is contingent on SIIC and other Shiite elements abstaining from overreaching vis-a-vis Sadr in their rivalry for the oil and shrine riches in the south of Iraq. The US is pushing for greater confrontation, but when push comes to shove, the Shiites will look after their own interests, and not ours. At least when the two don't line up.

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