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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sadr losing his grip on Mahdi Army

Financial Times: An upsurge in violence in southern Iraq has thrown a spotlight on radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, to whom the Iraqi government is turning for help at the same time as it moves against his followers.

Although Mr Sadr is revered by many Shia radicals, it is unclear how much direct authority he wields over the increasingly splintered movement that he led to prominence after the fall of Saddam.

The importance of Mr Sadr was highlighted during the recent intra-Shia conflict in Amara, when Jawad al-Bolani, interior minister, visited the cleric at his home in the holy city of Najaf.

Mr Sadr's mediation appears to have helped convince hundreds of fighters from the Mahdi Army militia loyal to the young cleric to return to their homes, after they had stormed several police stations in a battle with a rival Shia militia with ties to the police.

During last Friday's sermon, one of Mr Sadr's deputies delivered a fierce rebuke that was seemingly aimed at Mahdi Army fighters responsible for the Amara uprising and other clashes that have broken out across the south.

"This disobedience to the leadership has divided us and earned us multiple enemies," declared Sheikh Jaber al-Khafaji, the preacher who speaks for Mr Sadr at his family's mosque in the southern city of Kufa. "If you do not obey, you will regret it. Indeed, I declare that you will be cursed."

Even the fiercest of rebukes may have a limited impact on the Mahdi Army, which some US officials say has splintered into groups as small as a few dozen fighters, less of a movement than a Shia militant subculture.

Mr Sadr's movement probably began to splinter in late 2004, when he called off an insurrection against US and British troops. It appears to have disintegrated even further after February 2006, when his followers embarked on a campaign of sectarian killing in response to the demolition of a Shia shrine.

Mr Sadr's ideology has long emphasised Sunni-Shia unity against the Americans and he is reportedly dismayed by the violence, not least because it delays the withdrawal of US troops. He has called on his followers not to shed Iraqi blood without permission. He may however have to gauge how much political capital he is willing to spend to rein in a militant movement that now considers Sunni radicals, rather than Americans, to be their primary enemy.

Mr Sadr has reportedly tried with varying degrees of success to replace insubordinate commanders in cities in the south. He has been surprisingly quiet about US-Iraqi raids targeting Mahdi Army cells that have allegedly involved themselves in death squad killings.

US commanders however complain that other Mahdi Army commanders still enjoy political protection, and are forced to release detained militiamen at the request of government officials including Mr Maliki himself.

However dangerous Mr Sadr's followers may be, the Iraqi leadership may be betting that it best to bolster the one man who still has some authority over them.

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