Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Private Militias and Missing Cleric Continue to Plague Peace in Iraq

Sunnis Accuse US of Delaying Sadr City Crackdown

Political pressure has mounted on U.S. forces in Iraq to crack down on Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood that harbors the Shiite militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. For their part, American commanders appear reluctant to take that step, reportedly concerned about stirring up a hornet's nest in a neighborhood of more than 2 million Shiites.

Once known as Saddam City, then as Al Thawr, the district is one of the poorest in Baghdad. Unemployment is rampant. Homes are in disrepair. It is also a haven for criminals released from Iraqi prisons by Saddam shortly before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2003 the city was unofficially renamed to Sadr City. Named for the Imam Mohammed Sadr, an Iraqi religious leader killed by Saddam Hussein. His son, the troublesome Muqtada al-Sadr, is a powerful political leader in the city and in the country as a whole. He bases his legitimacy upon his relationship to his father, and gains much of his support through the popularity of his father. He commands as many allies in the Iraqi Parliament as any single party; and his armed followers permeate Iraq’s security forces, control the streets throughout eastern Baghdad and the Shiite south, and fill the ranks of many of the death squads that terrorize the country’s Sunni minority.

Shiites against Shiites

The predominantly Shiite south has been fairly peaceful. The stability of Iraq's government depends on a tenuous peace between Mr. Sadr, who controls one of the largest voting blocs in parliament, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who leads the Badr militia and the country’s largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. A generations-long feud between their families has carried over into a personal and political rivalry between the men, and their militias have periodically clashed.

The local governor is a former Mahdi Army commander. But the police chief is a former Badr Organization member, and many of his policemen pledge loyalty to that militia. This might partly explain why American commanders are reluctant to go into Sadr city with Iraqi police and military who may be seen enemies by the Mahdi Army. The Mahdi army has shown several times in the past that they are a force to be reckoned with. Last year the Mahdi army southeastern city of Amara destroyed police stations and seized control of entire neighborhoods, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of one of their fighters. Then as soon as negotiations were underway for the man's release the city was returned to the Iraqi military,

Where is Moqtada al-Sadr?

Followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr insist their leader is still in Iraq, disputing claims by US officials that he has fled to Iran to avoid a new offensive against militants.

Four Sadr aides said he was still in the country, with some indicating he was in Najaf but had reduced public appearances for "security reasons." "He is now in Iraq," Nassar al-Rubaei, head of the Sadrist bloc in Iraq's parliament. The conflicting reports come after Iraq announced it is closing its borders with Iran and Syria and lengthening a night curfew in Baghdad to try to curb relentless violence in Baghdad.

The ABC News network reported al-Sadr had fled to Iran because of fears he might be targeted by US bombing raids. Two anonymous US officials repeated these assertions to Reuters. In a report on CNN, administration officials said Sadr's departure may have been prompted by Bush's plan to add 21,500 troops in Iraq to help the Baghdad crackdown. (Reuters, Feb. 14)

This may be part of an effort to show al-Sadr as an Iranian agent—which would be right in line with the recent claims that Iran is supplying explosives to the Iraq insurgents. The reason the the US attacked Afghanistan was because they refused (as though they had the power) to hand over Osama Bin Laden. Afghanistan therefore was found guilty of harboring a terrorist, and subject to punishment by the US military. The same case might be made about al-Sadr and Iran giving more legitimacy to the predicted US attack on Iran.

Fattah al-Sheikh, a Sadrist official in Baghdad, accused the U.S. of trying to besmirch Sadr's reputation as an independent Iraqi leader by implying that he is an agent of Iran, thereby giving U.S. forces an excuse to capture or kill him in accordance with President Bush's new policy authorizing American troops to hunt down Iranian agents operating in Iraq.

Fattah al-Sheikh promised that Sadr would deliver prayers this Friday to prove that he is still in Iraq.

"They want to harm the Sadr movement by suggesting that Moqtada al-Sadr is being paid by Iran, and then, under the pretext of him being an agent and a collaborator with Iran, which is impossible . . . they want to hunt him down," he said.

Moqtada al-Sadr has had a warrant out for his arrest in the past, and US forces have, again in the past, declared that they would capture him dead or alive. His strong political influence and his militia have kept him safe so far. US authorities have at thew beginning of this February tried to negotiate with Mr. Sadr but his officials declined the offer saying Al-Sadr does not want the US to be in Iraq, or to do any negotiations representing the interest of the Iraqi nation.

Sadr has not been seen in public since mid-January, when U.S. forces netted some 400 of his followers in a series of raids, including one of his top aides. He told the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica that he feared for his life, had moved his family to a "safe place" and moved constantly to evade assassination.

US is not shaking in their boots:

The US & Iraqi forces may not as of yet be going door to door in Sadr city as they have been in other parts of Baghdad, instead they are running special raids to decrease the power of the Mehdi army.

About 600 fighters and 16 leaders of the radical Shia militia, the Mehdi Army, have been captured by security forces in Iraq, the US military says. The statement said 52 operations had been conducted in 45 days targeting the militia, which is loyal to Najaf-based cleric Moqtada Sadr. A spokesman for the movement would not confirm the numbers detained, but he said they were now seeing Iraqi and US raids almost every day.

The military said five of the Mehdi Army leaders were detained in the pro-Sadr bastion, Sadr City. One senior figure was killed in a raid.

"The detainees are responsible for attacks against the government of Iraq, Iraqi citizens and coalition forces," the US military said. "Criminal activities by these individuals propagated instability within Iraq and their removal from the social structure is a critical start to providing the Iraqi populace with a safe and stable environment." I

The Sunni Position:

The US & Iraqi force have recently detained 33 Sunni "extremist cell leaders" in Baghdad, a statement said. "They were "responsible for foreign fighter facilitation, car bomb facilitation, and propaganda operations".

The Sunni's are continually battling against militant Shiite groups in Northern Iraq.

A previous US/Iraqi security plan launched last summer, faltered in part because the Shiite-led government refused to authorize the deployment of U.S. forces in Shiite areas dominated by the Mahdi Army.

"We would have members of the Council of Representatives who would call directly down to Iraqi commanders, police, army and give them directions that they would not conduct operations in certain areas [and] if they did arrest somebody, that they would release that person." said military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell.

The Sunni's fear the same type of favoritism for the Shiites in the current security crackdown.

President Bush showed his bias at a speech on 11/30/05 at Annapolis:

"The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists. The rejectionists are by far the largest group. These are ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, who miss the privileged status they had under the regime of Saddam Hussein -- and they reject an Iraq in which they are no longer the dominant group."

Other Notes:

Cindy Sheehans son died in Sadr City

On April 4, the Mahdi Army ambushed a U.S. Army patrol in Sadr City, killing eight American soldiers. This sparked urban fighting between the Mahdi Army and units of the 1st Brigade Combat team 1st Cavalry Division that lasted until June. Casey Sheehan, the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan's son, was killed in Sadr City during the fighting.

Casey Sheehan was in Iraq only two weeks when he was killed while driving a Humvee just outside of southern Baghdad during the uprising there. He was one of eight soldiers killed by Shiite militia firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades in an early morning ambush of the convoy. He was 24 years old at the time (April, 2004). Sheehan was a member of the 82nd Field Artillery of the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas.

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