Apr 23, 2010 | 21:42 GMT

3 mins read

Iraq: Sectarian Tensions and the al-Sadrite Re-emergence

Radical Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr's movement has called on its armed wing, the Mehdi Army, to help the country's security forces protect its Shiite majority against militant attacks. Senior al-Sadrite leader Baha al-Araji criticized the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for incompetence in failing to prevent recent bombings. His remarks came hours after serial car bombings in the Iraqi capital claimed 64 lives and wounded more than 100 others. Al-Araji said that al-Sadr, who remains in Iran, wants the movement's militia to come forth and shoulder the responsibility of protecting Shiite shrines and masses. These comments underscore the threat of increased sectarian polarization in Iraq, especially given the postelection situation, which pits the Shia and Sunnis against each other in a power struggle to form the next government. Significantly, this is the first time the movement has sought to revive its militia since al-Sadr deactivated it indefinitely in August 2008. In March of the same year, al-Sadr ordered Mehdi Army militiamen to withdraw from the streets and cooperate with Iraqi security forces. The militia had challenged the writ of the Shiite-dominated post-Baathist state and engaged in sectarian violence from 2003 up to that point. Since al-Sadr's move to have his militia stand down was informed by the factionalization of the militia and his relative loss of control over it, its present effectiveness as an armed group remains unclear. The move may also have been sparked by the fact that the al-Sadrite movement controls the bulk of the 70 seats the Shiite Islamist coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), won in the March 7 parliamentary polls. The al-Sadrites are now flexing their political muscles. Already, the al-Sadrite refusal to accept al-Maliki as a joint candidate for prime minister has reportedly created obstacles in the INA's move to merge with al-Maliki's State of Law coalition and form a super Shia bloc. In other words, the statement about reviving the al-Sadrite militia is not just about sectarian power struggles, but also intra-Shia power politics. At a higher level, talk of resuscitating the Mehdi Army could also be a signal from Iran — which is closely controlling the evolution of the al-Sadrite movement — to the United States that Washington must accept an Iranian-leaning Shiite-dominated Iraqi government or risk having its drawdown plans upset by sectarian warfare. At this preliminary stage, it is unclear whether the Mehdi Army will be re-activated — and if so, in what shape or form. But in the context of Iraqi government formation and the continuing U.S.-Iranian fight for Iraq, the development is key amidst growing sectarian tensions.

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