The Iraqi government admitted March 29 that local police were involved in the massacre of some 70 Sunnis in the northern Iraqi city of Tall Afar. Though Tall Afar has seen militancy of various stripes in the past, this is the first case of sectarian violence in the city. This incident gives Muqtada al-Sadr's movement an opportunity to exploit the situation to its advantage to counter the pressure it is currently under and advance its position.
Two senior Iraqi government officials said March 29 that police were involved in the Shiite militant massacre of some 70 Sunnis in the Al Wahada district of the northern Iraqi city of Tall Afar. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani and Duraid Kashmoula, governor of Ninawa province, confirmed that the Shiite-dominated police force was behind the March 28 shooting of the Sunnis in retaliation for the March 27 twin suicide bombing in the town, which killed 85 Shia. Iraq's Sunni vice president has called for extremely harsh penalties for the police, demanding they be treated as insurgents. Tall Afar has seen violence involving a wide range of groups but this is the first major Shiite retaliation against attacks from Sunni militants in the city. Given its ethno-sectarian and politico-ideological composition, Tall Afar could become the scene of full-blown sectarian strife. This could give Muqtada al-Sadr's radical Shiite movement an opportunity to not only counter the pressure it is currently under but also to advance its position. Al-Sadr has long been trying to gain influence among the Shiite Turkomen community in northern Iraq. Tall Afar is mostly Turkomen — an Iraqi ethnic group which, in general and in Tall Afar, is split along Shiite-Sunni sectarian lines. The town has seen Shiite-Sunni clashes in the past, many of which were precipitated by jihadists who also have been quite active in the area. Tall Afar, given its location, also has seen tensions between Kurds and other minority communities. Shiite militants have been active in Tall Afar, but there had not been a discernible pattern of organized Shiite militia activity there. The massacre of the Sunnis at the hands of Shiite policemen is the first sign of such militia activity. There have been accusations that members of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army were involved in the Sunni massacre. Al-Sadr does have a following among the Shiite Turkomen population, and his Mehdi Army is the most prominent Shiite militia force engaged in sectarian violence. Moreover, the incident in Tall Afar provides the al-Sadrites with the perfect opportunity to come out from underneath the pressure they are facing in the wake of the Baghdad Security Plan. They can now make the argument that they can protect the Shia against attacks launched by the jihadists and Saddamists when the government dominated by the mainstream Shiite groups cannot. Therefore, sectarian violence perpetrated by the Mehdi Army is likely to spike, especially since the jihadists and other Sunni nationalist groups will launch counterattacks to retaliate for the recent Sunni deaths. More important, though, the Tall Afar incident has just widened the radius of sectarian violence in the country.