BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr says the next step is “open war”. The U.S.-backed government shows no sign of backing down.
Suddenly, after many months in which the news from Iraq has been mostly about falling violence, the country is reeling towards a rebellion by millions of Sadr’s followers against a government crackdown on his black-masked Mehdi Army militia.
Ultimately, say experts, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may never be able to defeat the popular cleric by force, and his attempt to do so could make Iraq far more unstable at a time when U.S. troops are reducing in numbers.
So far, Maliki has averted disaster.
After embarrassing early mishaps in their month-old campaign in the southern oil hub of Basra, government forces have scored a number of military gains. They now control Sadr’s main strongholds in Basra, and residents report that the iron grip of religious militia on life there has eased.
Maliki, also a Shi’ite, has won full backing for the crackdown, from both Washington and a broad range of Iraqi politicians including his former Sunni Arab foes.
But the young anti-American cleric has a devoted following.
His strongholds in the poorest Shi’ite parts of Baghdad are a danger zone for troops, and his heavily armed fighters are itching for battle, especially after Sadr threatened “open war until liberation” unless the government halted the offensive.
“I think the threat should be taken very seriously indeed,” said Reidar Visser, editor of the Iraq-focused website historiae.org and an expert on southern Shi’ite Iraq.
“The Sadrists represent a strong popular movement with deep roots in Iraqi society, and it is entirely unrealistic to deal with them through military solutions alone.”
Maliki’s government and U.S. officials describe the crackdown against Sadr as strictly an effort to impose the rule of law and stop any group whose members are armed.
But Sadr’s followers say the operation is motivated by politics ahead of elections for powerful local and provincial posts in October. They say other groups, including those that support Maliki, also have their own militias.
If elections were held today, Sadr’s movement would stand a good chance of winning control of some provinces, towns and cities from Maliki’s supporters, especially in southern Iraq.
Maliki earlier this month warned he would bar Sadr’s movement from the elections unless he disbanded the Mehdi Army.
Sadr in return threatened to lift a ceasefire he imposed on his militia last August, which has been widely credited with helping reduce violence. His threat of “open war” was the starkest sign yet that he is on a collision course with Maliki.
“The provincial elections are ahead and if the Sadrists were banned from participating, wide-scale confrontation is looming,” said Iraqi university professor Saad al-Hadithi.
Sadr’s movement actually backed Maliki’s rise to power in 2006 but split with the prime minister a year ago when he refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The cleric’s popularity is real and his anti-American political message has genuine appeal for millions of followers.
“Sadr is calling for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, which is a perfectly negotiable demand and not more radical than what many Americans are also asking for,” noted Visser.
In many of the poorest Shi’ite areas, Sadr’s offices provide a range of much-needed humanitarian services, from food to health care to education, as well as armed protection that Maliki’s government has so far been unable to provide.
Their strict religious codes, while severe to some, resonate with many Shi’ites who feel their sect was persecuted under ousted leader Saddam Hussein and have rallied around religious observance as a symbol of their new political power.
In head-to-head combat, government and U.S.-led forces are still likelier to defeat Sadr than the other way around, said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Sadr launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004.
“It is important to note… that the Sadrists did not win any previous clashes with (U.S. and British forces), have not won any significant clashes in this round of fighting, seem to have lost in Basra and have not had any overt Iranian encouragement and support,” Cordesman said in an e-mail.
But he warned it was easier to provoke a political movement like Sadr’s through attacks than to “to defeat it as a religious and political force”.
“Iraq’s poorer and more religious Shi’ites will not disappear no matter how good the military gains are against the (Mehdi Army),” Cordesman wrote.
“No one in Iraq goes quietly into that great night.”