Recent calls by the radical Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to his Jaysh al-Mahdi (JaM) militia to become involved in protecting local Shi’a mosques have ignited fear of a new sectarian confrontation in Iraq. Al-Sadr has suggested that his followers join the national security forces to protect Shi’a residential areas and places of worship. The call came after the carnage that took place in Shi’a areas around Baghdad on April 23. Dozens of Muqtada’s followers were killed when bombs killed worshipers outside mosques after Friday prayer. The highest casualties were in Muqtada’s stronghold of Sadr City in East Baghdad, where two car bombs detonated at a local market and one of the local branches of the Sadrist movement. The attacks were seen as an act of revenge by the radical Sunni organization al-Qaeda in Iraq after the killing of its two top leaders a few days prior (Asharq al-Awsat, April 24).
Muqtada al-Sadr has curbed the activities of his militias for the last two years. According to his aides, the greatest part of the JaM militia has become a non-armed organization called al-Mumahhidun (“The Pavers,” who will pave the way for the return of the 12th Imam), while a small number of fighters, who report directly to Muqtada, kept their arms for the sole purpose of fighting U.S. forces (Asharq al-Awsat, May 8, 2009; see also Terrorism Monitor September 4, 2008). According to Imad al-Sa’idi, a JaM commander in al-Sadr City, “The Imam’s army was not dissolved in the first place. Rather, it was in a state of truce, which continues to be in force. However, we are concerned that the situation might deteriorate again, especially if the formation of a government is delayed.” (al-Hayat, May 18).
The followers of Muqtada have gained significant political momentum after the March 7 election. As no single party won an overall majority in the 325 seat Iraqi parliament, the Sadrists emerged as a considerable power with their 40 seats. In the current political equation it is almost undisputable that they will have cabinet posts. They will also have a say in who will be the next prime minister. The Sadrists do not have a single preference for the top post but they are clear that they will not support the incumbent, Nuri al-Maliki (Tariq al-Sha’b [Baghdad], May 16; al-Alam [Baghdad], May 16).
Relations between the prime minister and the Sadrists changed from a strong alliance in 2006—when al-Maliki took office—to one of severe enmity after the crackdown that al-Maliki launched against the JaM in 2008. The prime minister, who once said the Shi’a militia was worse than al-Qaeda, showed a surprisingly flexible reaction towards Muqtada’s recent call. He accepted the principle of having armed Sadrists working in coordination with the security forces to secure the Shi’a mosques and Husayniyahs (places devoted to Shi’a religious and mourning rituals). “In order not to have crime of the [April 23] Friday prayer bombing happening again, I hope that a number of the Sadrist elements would volunteer to work with the security forces assigned to protect the mosques. The goal is to coordinate the efforts to secure those areas in the same way the Sahwa [anti-al-Qaeda Sunni fighters] secured their neighborhoods… However the power should be in the hands of the government.” The spokesman for Muqtada thought that this was not enough and clarified that his leader’s call was to allow the Sadrist fighters to join the security forces. But the Sadrists also revealed that they want to have an independent intelligence service in order to anticipate such attacks and deal with them (Al-Hayat, April 28).
Muqtada’s call and al-Maliki’s response have raised the concerns of mainstream Sunnis but it also attracted attention to the pro-al-Qaeda websites where both Muqtada and al-Maliki were cursed and condemned (hanein.info, April 28).
Al-Maliki’s popularity surged upwards after his crackdown on the Shi’a militias in 2008, yet his government could not stop the violence completely, especially the massive attacks against civilian targets. The attacks on Shi’a mosques have not stopped. Those attacks in particular are especially dangerous in terms of the possibility of reigniting the Shi’a-Sunni conflict. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is usually not clear in claiming responsibility for every attack on civilian targets, but the extremist Sunni organization has never hidden its hatred towards the Shi’a. In his first public statement the new war minister of al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Nasser Lideen Ellah Abu Sulayman, vowed to continue the fight against the Shi’a. He promised that there will be more bloody days coming with no possibility other than fighting (alfaloja.net, May 14, 2010).
Senior aides of Muqtada ruled out the possibility of reviving the sectarian conflict with their leader’s recent move, though this did not seem to pacify the worries of the Sunni community. The sectarian violence in Iraq significantly increased when the JaM became active after the bombing of the Shi’a al- Askariya Shrine in Samara’a on February 22, 2006. This was due to the rapid spread of the militia and the support it enjoyed in the impoverished Shi’a neighborhoods.
The political standstill after the election has not produced a new government, yet it is affecting the security situation. The consolidated political power of the Sadrists raises many questions regarding their relations with the current and coming governments. The recent developments have shown that the two main parties of the sectarian fight of 2006-2007 (i.e. JaM and al-Qaeda in Iraq) still exist, though they operate on different levels and employ different tactics.