Patrick Cockburn

A new struggle is beginning in Iraq. The most important battles likely to be waged this year will be within the Shia community. They pit the US-backed Iraqi government against the supporters of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who represents the impoverished Shia masses. ‘The Shia are the majority in Iraq and the Sadrists are a majority of this majority,’ a former Shia minister told me. ‘They make up 30 to 40 per cent of the total Iraqi population.’ The population of Iraq is 27 million: on this calculation, as many as ten million support Muqtada.

The result of underestimating the fighting power and popular support of the Sadrists was demonstrated at the end of March in the battle for Basra, which was unexpectedly launched when Nouri al-Maliki announced that he was going to end militia rule in the city, Iraq’s second largest. He left the Green Zone in Baghdad to take command, provoking derisive references by Iraqi politicians to ‘General Maliki’. He demanded that militiamen hand over their weapons within three days and promise to reject violence; and he threatened to crush them if they didn’t. George Bush called it ‘a defining moment’ for the new Iraq.

This time Bush may be right; although, once again, he may not understand the seriousness of the fight he is getting into. The Shia community is splitting apart after five years of solidarity. It is a split not just between the government and the militias but between rich and poor. Maliki’s main supporters – his own Dawa Party has a small base – are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and its Badr militia. ISCI draws its support primarily from the established Shia clergy, the merchants and the Shia middle class, but has lacked popular support ever since it was founded in and by Iran in 1982, early in the Iraq-Iran war. That it had acquired an unsavoury reputation for interrogating and torturing prisoners did not stop it becoming a firm ally of the US occupation after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Muqtada has long tried to avoid an all-out military confrontation with his Shia rivals while they still have the support of the US. On 7 April he even said he would dissolve the Mehdi Army if asked to do so by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and leading Shia clerics in Iran. There is less to this promise than meets the eye. It is easy enough for Iraqi militias to disband, take their weapons with them, and reassemble the following morning. But this time Muqtada’s enemies seem convinced they can crush his movement for good.

This conflict also marks a new chapter in the proxy struggle between the US and Iran that has been going on ever since the American invasion. But, for all Washington’s attempts to prove otherwise, the insurgency was primarily supported by the Sunni Arab states to the west of Iraq. Although Muqtada is the only Shia leader who has opposed the US occupation consistently from the start, the Sadrists have traditionally been highly suspicious of the Iranians. In April and August 2004 his militiamen fought two furious battles with US marines for the Shia holy city of Najaf. Although they suffered heavy casualties, the Mehdi Army survived and Muqtada became politically stronger. He claimed that he was shifting from military to political resistance, but confronting the US now forces him to look for political and military support from Iran. ‘The Iranians cannot afford to see Muqtada eliminated or seriously weakened,’ says Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi political scientist. In Iran’s battle with the US for influence over the Iraqi Shia, Muqtada plays too important a role for Iran to see him eliminated. On the other hand, the Iranians are firm supporters of Maliki and his Shia-dominated government.

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