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The End of The Sadrist Ceasefire?

One very very large reason for the decline in violence in Baghdad in the latter half of 2007 was radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to have his Mahdi Army militia stand down. The U.S. military command, under Gen. David Petraeus, realized it was in everyone’s interest to hug Sadr and go after the rogue elements of the Mahdi Army that didn’t obey Sadr’s ceasefire. They even created a bureaucratic category for those elements: “Special Groups.” You haven’t heard Petraeus talk about the Mahdi Army for a while, only the Special Groups. Instead, this is how Petraeus’s people talk about Sadr: “Al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr’s cease-fire has been helpful in reducing violence and has led to improved security in Iraq.” That was a Multinational Forces-Iraq spokesman, Rear Adm. Greg Smith, last month.

But tensions existed within the Sadrists for years — it’s a huge, nationalistic, mob-ruled, religiously fanatic, cult-of-personality-driven and dominant Shiite movement — and the ceasefire brought them into relief. Earlier this month, near the Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City, Shiites held an unprecedented-since-the-occupation-began anti-Sadr protest. They were angry over the cleric’s recent quietism.

Now it looks like the dam is bursting. According to the Wall Street Journal and McClatchy, at least some cohort of Sadrists are sick and tired of its former ally, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; as well as its Shiite rivals in the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The Journal:

Fighting broke out Tuesday on the streets of Sadr City, an area controlled by Shiite firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Mahdi Army militia announced it had taken over Iraqi army checkpoints in an escalation of tension with Iraqi government security forces.

The sound of gunfire could be heard in Sadr City throughout the morning and Mahdi Army members walked down the streets carrying rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other weapons in what appeared to be a show of force, according to two witnesses. It is unclear whether the men were legitimate Mahdi Army members or part of a faction that has broken from Mr. Sadr.

There was also heavy fighting on Tuesday in the major city of Basra, Iraq’s southern oil hub, between the militia and Iraqi security forces aligned with the main Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. A curfew was also imposed in the area.

Your guess is as good as mine as to why Sadr would have extended his ceasefire last month only to abrogate it now. Maybe he’s not in control. After all, he’s in Iran right now, to get the ecclesiastical training necessary to truly take over Shiite Iraq. But this sounds like a rather deliberate action:

In areas under its control, the Mahdi Army ordered some shops closed Monday and they remained shut down on Tuesday, according to witnesses. Students were also ordered to go home and schools were closed. The militia has said it would initiate what Sadr-aligned politicians have called a “civil disobedience” movement in Baghdad, to protest what it says is an unfair crackdown on Sadr followers by the government.

McClatchy provides some context:

Since Sadr froze his militia on Aug. 29 and renewed the freeze in February, militia members and Sadrists have railed against the government for targeting and detaining their members. In Basra, Sadr’s office rejected the security plan and warned that it’ll react if attacked or if Iraqi forces detain more Sadrists.

As Shiite violence rises, U.S. troop deaths also appear to be rising in places such as Baghdad, where the American military is thinning out its presence as part of its drawdown of five brigades. Attacks against civilians in the capital are rising, according to statistics compiled by McClatchy. Next week, the U.S. will finish pulling out the second of five surge brigades. As part of the drawdown, the military has moved battalions out of Baghdad toward more violent areas such as the northern city of Mosul and Iraq’s northeastern Diyala province.

At least one theory worth entertaining is that the Sadrists waited out the surge. I don’t have the evidence necessary to support it, but it’s something to consider when Petraeus testifies before Congress early next month.

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