Friday, October 1, 2010

Moving beyond Iraq's Impasse: Iran and the Return of Shiite Militias

Although there is definite movement towards finally forming a new Iraqi government, there are a number of disturbing developments as well. The return of Shiite militias as a force to be reckoned with in south central and southern Iraq is a disturbing new element in Iraq's current political impasses following the March 2010 Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) elections. Before turning to these militias, what led up to their reentry into the current political equation?

When Nuri al-Maliki became Iraqi Prime Minister in 2006, he was seen as weak and lacked popularity. That all changed in March 2008 when he ordered an offensive against the Mahdi Army (JAM) and other militias in Basra who were terrorizing the population. While many considered the offensive an ill-advised and dangerous gamble, the Iraqi Army, with US logistical and air support, successfully completed its mission. Subsequently, it entered Revolution (Sadr) City in Baghdad where it subdued the JAM before moving on to the border city of Amara, a critical entry point for weapons and drugs from Iran. In interviews in the Arabic press in the spring of 2008, formerly scornful Basrawis now had pictures of Maliki in their cell phones and referred to him as a strong leader.

Many Iraqis breathed a sigh of relief when the JAM was effectively eliminated as a major military force. This was especially true of middle class Shiites in Baghdad and elsewhere whose automobiles, homes and other property had been confiscated by the JAM in neighborhoods that it controlled (NY Times, July 27, 2008).

Not all Mahdi Army militiamen were willing to follow the lead of Muqtada al-Sadr who has focused on the electoral route to gaining power since 2008. The Sadrist Trend (al-tayyar al-sadri) won 40 seats in the March 2010 Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) elections. Due to the stalemate in forming a new government, the Sadrist bloc of seats is crucial to whoever tries to become the next Iraqi prime minister, whether Maliki, Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi, a vice-president from the Iraqi National Alliance or (the least likely) Iyad 'Allawi, head of al-'Iraqiya.

While the focus in the post-election gridlock has been on the struggle between the two main coalitions - the Iraqiya List, which won 91 seats, and Maliki's State of Law Coalition, which won 89 seats, al-Hayat reported in September that a deal was in the works in which Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi would become prime minister, Ayad 'Allawi would be given the presidency, and the Kurds would take over the position of speaker of the parliament.

Iran, which has developed a close relationship with Nuri al-Maliki, did not find this deal acceptable and has been, according to the Arab press, behind the reemergence of a number of Shi'i militias, all of which are either splinters of the Mahdi Army or have ties to Muqtada al-Sadr. While Maliki is anathema to Sadr for his 2008 attack on the JAM, and Sadr has steadfastly refused since March to support him for another term as prime minister, he apparently has now relented under Iranian pressure and concessions from al-Maliki. Those concessions will undoubtedly give Sadr access once again to ministries that will allow him to control the distribution of social benefits such as he did when part of the government in 2006. More disturbing are rumors that Sadr may be offered positions that have to do with national security and/or the military.

Beyond the pressure currently being exerted by Iran, Both Sadr and Maliki have strong incentives to come to terms. First, Sadr does not want to see armed groups that have splintered from the JAM gain power at his expense. These militias have engaged in violence with Iranian support. Two of them, the League of the People of Righteousness (asa'ib ahl al-haqq), and the Hizballah Brigades (kata'ib hizb allah) broke with Sadr after 2008 when he opted for a political strategy. Another group, the Promised Day Brigades (alawiat al-yawm al-maw'ud) has close ties to al-Sadr and seems to represent a new incarnation of the Mahdi Army.

Following the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, these militias became more active in Iraq's south central and southern regions, with the League engaged in operations in Dhi Qar, Misan and al-Basra provinces while Hizballah claimed responsibility for explosions in Karbala', al-Najaf and Baghdad. With the continued political crisis, and a smaller US military presence, these groups feel encouraged to try and exploit the growing power vacuum.

Second, al-Maliki knows that time is not on his side. Already strong support has developed for appointing 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi as prime minister due to al-Maliki's struggle with Iyad 'Allawi and the subsequent gridlock it produced. There is considerable resentment at Maliki's efforts to expand the power of the post of prime minister, such as creating military and intelligence units that only report to him. Removing Maliki from office would prevent him from further institutionalizing his power in ways that many politicians, even Shi'is in the Iraqi National Alliance, find disturbing.

What do these developments suggest? First, they show that Iraq's Shi'i political elite is by no means unified. Second, Iran seems to have been able, for the moment, to use its influence to forge a new government in Iraq. However, it is doubtful that it will be able to sustain this level of influence as Iraq's elite hydrocarbon industry continues to grow, political processes become more institutionalized and Iraq's political elite becomes more self-confidant.

Third, ongoing developments leave open the question of where the Sunni Arab community fits into the new political landscape that is taking shape. While Maliki proclaims that no victorious party (meaning al-'Iraqiya) will be excluded from the new government, Iyad 'Allawi insists that al-'Iraqiya will not join any government headed by Maliki.

Finally and more disturbing is the increased power and influence of Shi's militias that are JAM wannabes. They underscore the fact that Iraq's poor have not seen much benefit in economic developments and state benefits since 2003. Unless the new Iraqi government begins to get serious about poverty, employment, health care, education and municipal services for the poor and dispossessed, radical groups such League of the People of Righteousness, the Hizballah Brigades and the Promised Day Brigades will continue to proliferate and threaten Iraq's political stability and efforts at democratization. These cxonditions will continue to provide fertile soil for Iran's Revolutionary Guards and other disruptive foreign elements to detabilize Iraqi politics.

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