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Shiite power struggle behind Iraq clashes, analysts say

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S.-backed Shiites fighting anti-American Shiites in Iraq, analysts say
  • Iraqi prime minister aligning himself with pro-U.S. Shiite group
  • Anti-American group is led by militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr
  • Analysts say Shiite merchant class supports one side, poorer Shiites the other
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By Joe Sterling
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(CNN) -- Recent deadly clashes in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City represent Shiite-vs.-Shiite political maneuvering ahead of Iraqi provincial elections, analysts say.

Iraqi troops take up positions during April fighting against Mehdi Army militiamen in Basra.

And the fighting, according to the analysts who study Iraq, represents the struggle between U.S.-backed Shiites and those allied with the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The analysts also say the Basra and Sadr City fighting has enabled Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki -- much criticized for failing to forge political progress in Iraq -- to align himself with the U.S.-backed Shiite group and recast himself as an effective leader of a strong central government.

The U.S.-backed Shiite group is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the leading party in the government's United Iraqi Alliance bloc.

Al-Sadr's anti-American group is the "Sadrist Current," and its fighters belong to the Mehdi Army militia.

Analysts say the upshot of the recent street fighting is a stronger hand for al-Maliki and the U.S.-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI.

"At least in the short term, it looks like ISCI and al-Maliki have come out on top, both in terms of weakening Sadr and weakening the Mehdi Army," says Jason Gluck, rule of law adviser for the U.S. Institute of Peace, a research group based in Washington.

The Islamic Supreme Council is an older party whose leaders lived in Iranian exile during the Saddam Hussein era and has long had support among Iraq's Shiite merchant classes.

The Sadrist Current is a grass-roots political movement that coalesced after Hussein was toppled and swiftly became the movement of choice among many poor Shiites.

The groups have had turf battles during the post-Hussein era in southern Iraq and have squared off frequently, with the ISCI-dominated government security forces fighting the Mehdi Army.

In January 2005 elections, the Islamic Supreme Council gained power in provincial government offices. Observers say the Sadrists at the time were not well-organized to participate in the balloting and did not have a Sadrist bloc.

But the Sadrists intend to take part in upcoming provincial elections, slated to be held by October 1, and analysts believe the Islamic Supreme Council is concerned at the prospect of losing power in the provinces to al-Sadr's followers.

One reason for the concern: The U.S.-backed Islamic Supreme Council needs the clout to create a nine-province Shiite region in the south not unlike the autonomous region the Kurds have in the north. This move is staunchly opposed by the Sadrists.

When al-Maliki and his security forces embarked on the offensives, they claimed they were taking on "outlaws" and "criminal elements" -- not one particular group, such as the Mehdi Army. But observers say other developments have belied this stance.

Violence dissipated in Basra when al-Sadr issued a call to stop it, and the government needed to work out an agreement with the Sadrists themselves to end fighting in Sadr City.

Al-Maliki, who is the leader of the smaller Dawa Party, even warned the Sadrists during the Basra offensive that it would need to disband its militia in order to take part in elections. The elections legislation now under discussion in parliament includes this language.

The view that the fighting reflects a political battle has been cited in recent reports.

The International Crisis Group issued a report in April called "Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy." It said al-Maliki's warning "lent credence both to the view that the campaign's target had been the Sadr movement" and "to the notion that its objective had been to forestall the Sadrists' participation in provincial elections.

"This is indeed about an intra-Shiite struggle," says Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the crisis group's Middle East program, and he adds it is one in which the United States has decided to take sides with Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies' Anthony Cordesman expressed similar ideas in an April report called "The Shi'ite Gamble: Rolling the Dice for Iraq's Future."

"Maliki's effort to suppress the Sadr movement is clear," he wrote.

The ISCI and al-Maliki, Gluck says, are "winning the narrative." They have portrayed al-Sadr as a lackey of Iran and have blamed deaths and destabilization in Baghdad and Basra on al-Sadr.

That's "no small feat," Gluck says, since al-Sadr had largely stuck by his cease-fire for about eight months before the Iraqi government launched the Basra and Baghdad offensives.

Al-Sadr declared a suspension of Mehdi Army military or armed activities in August and renewed the suspension in February; the Mehdi Army has largely observed the cease-fire. As a result, the fierce sectarian violence and the Green Zone mortar attacks largely ceased in late 2007 into early this year, Gluck said.

Gluck says al-Maliki is attempting to cast himself as a unifier and a political leader intent on confronting "outlaws" of any stripe.

His offensives in Basra and Baghdad have won support from the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front, which is contemplating rejoining the government it had left. And al-Maliki is embarking on offensives in northern Iraq against militants in Nineveh province, moves that please Shiites.

"At the same time, the Sadrists continue to enjoy greater grass-roots support than any other Iraqi political party. So, it remains to be seen whether the Iraqi government's military victory will lead to lasting political gain," Gluck says.

Al-Maliki "is trying to reinvent himself as a strong leader, as someone who can unite the country, crack down on militias, and bring Sunnis back into the fold," he adds.

Reidar Visser, editor of the Iraq-oriented Web side and an expert on Shiite Iraq, also shares the suspicion that al-Maliki is attempting to subdue just one, rather than all, militias in order to isolate the Sadrists from the political process. But he believes the prime minister has overreached and miscalculated in his campaigns in Basra and Baghdad.

Visser says al-Maliki is attempting to emerge as a "strongman" inside the Shiite community and needs to be aligned with the Islamic Supreme Council for his survival. But Visser says the focus on the Mehdi Army is hypocritical and notes that other militias aren't being targeted.

If al-Maliki meant to be even-handed, Visser says, he would purge the police and army of ISCI militia influence.

Visser says he doesn't believe a law serving to ban the Sadrists would be successful, noting that there are many ways around such a restriction.

One idea, he says, is nominally transforming the Mehdi Army into a non-military organization, just as the Islamic Supreme Council did with its Badr Brigades. But he emphasizes that the Sadrists' grass-roots constituency is too powerful for the government to risk isolating them.

"The Sadrists are such an important force in Iraq, it seems foolhardy, unrealistic," Visser says. "I don't think they will succeed in a policy of exclusion."

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