Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Don't Say a Word, Don't Say Anything
As Fester and Juan Cole both observed, the shaky and and occasionaly ineffectual truce between the armed components of the Sadrist current (Mahdi Army) and ISCI (Badr Corp) is likely coming to a conclusion. Cole is right to note that the timing of this coincided with the long-anticipated announcement of a target date for regional elections (October 1).
As discussed last week, the Sadrists and ISCI are pitted in a spirited struggle for mastery of the Shiite-dominated south. Due to the fact that the Sadrists boycotted regional elections in 2005, ISCI controls many of the local political institutions. Now that regional elections will be held in a matter of months, and due to the popularity of the Sadrists and the association of ISCI with the unpopular Green Zone government, the Sadrists stand to make serious inroads. Thus, the truce is off as both sides will want to have maximum range of action as they jockey for positioning during what promises to be a conflict-fraught election season.
But there is another side to this story. During the recent Sadr-imposed Mahdi Army cease fire, ISCI's Badr Corp militia (often acting under "official" cover as its units have been incorporated into Iraq's security forces) together with US forces have continued to conduct raids on Mahdi Army groups. Some of these raids were likely welcomed by Sadr in his attempt to purge unruly, disloyal and radical elements from his ranks.
But the US forces and ISCI went too far - creating a nearly untenable position for Sadr, who has been facing extreme pressure from within his movement's ranks to release his hold on the militia and respond to this aggression. Sadr is letting ISCI know that, going forward, full retaliation will result from any future assaults (with perhaps a bit of payback mixed in for good measure).
What will be interesting to watch is whether or not Sadr also drops the de facto truce between the Mahdi Army and US forces. US forces have thus far appeared unfazed by warnings from Sadr that continued assaults on his cadres would force his hand. The threats are growing louder - or, in this case, quieter:
Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr may let a six-month cease-fire expire as soon as Saturday, a move that could send his Shiite militia fighters back out on the streets and jeopardize recent security gains that have led to a sharp decline in violence.
Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said that if the cleric failed to issue a statement by Saturday saying that the cease-fire was extended, "then that means the freeze is over." Al-Sadr's followers would be free to resume attacks.
On an Internet site representing al-Sadr, al-Obeidi said that al-Sadr "either will announce the extension or will stay silent and not announce anything. If stays silent, that means that the freeze is over."
Al-Obeidi said that message "has been conveyed to all Mahdi Army members nationwide."
The US response has thus far been respectful (using the honorific that I discussed recently):
But actions speak louder than words. Especially when silence is consent.
"Al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire has been helpful in reducing violence and has led to improved security in Iraq. We would welcome the extension of the cease-fire as a positive step," he said, using an honorific reserved for descendants of the Prophet Muhammed.
While the U.S. has welcomed the cease-fire, it also has insisted on continuing to stage raids against what it calls Iranian-backed breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army militia — moves that have angered the cleric's followers.