May 26, 2007

Iraq: Al-Sadr's Return and Iran's Plan

Source: Stratfor

May 25, 2007 18 28 GMT


Summary

Radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr reappeared in Iraq for Friday prayers May 25 after spending months hiding in Iran. Al-Sadr's return reflects movement in negotiations between Iran and the United States. With these talks in full swing, al-Sadr will use Tehran's security blanket to prepare his movement for an eventual overhaul of the Iraqi political system. For the U.S.-Iranian deal to work, al-Sadr will have to make good on a commitment to rein in his militia -- and it appears that he already has begun to deliver.

Analysis

After a nearly four-month hiatus, Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr made a public appearance May 25 in the holy Shiite town of Kufa, Iraq, for Friday prayers. Rumors that al-Sadr fled Iraq for his personal safety surfaced around the start of a U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in mid-February. Al-Sadr was most likely hiding out in Iran, taking the time to shore up his religious credentials while delivering instructions to his movement to lay low and avoid major confrontations with U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Al-Sadr's resurfacing could only have been made possible by a deal worked out between the United States and Iran in which Washington assured Tehran that al-Sadr would be on the U.S. military's "no touch" list. Though al-Sadr's movement has traditionally kept its distance from the Iranian clerical regime, priding itself on being an Iraqi nationalist movement rather than another Iranian proxy, the Iranians managed to use the security crackdown in Iraq to bring the radical leader under their umbrella.

An integral part of the framework of negotiations developing between Iran and the United States over Iraq involves a guarantee by the Iranians that they can rein in Iraq's Shiite militia groups to help quell sectarian bloodshed in the country. To make good on this promise, Iran needed to make al-Sadr dependent on Tehran for protection so that Iran could call in the favor when its negotiations with the United States advanced to a point where both sides would need to stop talking and start acting.

The longer al-Sadr remained in Iran, however, the greater the risk that his movement would implode and he would no longer be able to control his various commanders, who already operate independently for the most part. To be able to purge his militia of all the renegade elements, al-Sadr needed to step back into the picture -- and there was no better time than now, when the United States and Iran are forging ahead with direct negotiations to create a settlement on Iraq.

Surrounded by bodyguards and aides, al-Sadr told his followers during Friday prayers in Kufa that he would not back down from his demand for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. After being away for so long, al-Sadr has some damage control to do to demonstrate that his demands will be met (and actually can be met now that Iran and the United States are actively working on a U.S. exit strategy for Iraq.) Furthermore, al-Sadr ordered his Mehdi Army militiamen to refrain from fighting Iraqi security forces, reflecting the quiet cooperation between the U.S. military and al-Sadr that Iran has facilitated.

And it appears that al-Sadr is ready for that cooperation. Just after Friday prayers on May 25, Iraqi special forces backed up by British troops killed Mehdi Army militia commander Abu Qader, also known as Wissam al-Waili, and at least one of his aides after they resisted arrest in the oil-rich southern Iraqi city of Basra. Abu Qader, described as the leader of the Mehdi Army in Basra, was charged with weapons trafficking and carrying out attacks against British forces in the Shiite-dominated south. While normally this sort of incident would result in immediate retaliatory attacks, a senior member of al-Sadr's political bloc said its response to the killing would be limited to "political resistance." It could very well be that Abu Qader had become a Mehdi Army renegade and that his elimination was a quiet show of good faith by al-Sadr.

Moreover, major changes were recently made to the leadership structure of the Mehdi Army, according to a May 23 Al-Quds Al-Arabi report. The reorganization involves moving away from regional commands and toward smaller contingents comprising 23-strong brigades. These changes allow al-Sadr to break down the regional setup that led to the creation of multiple renegade units, and thus exert more control over his movement and the oil resources in Iraq's Shiite-dominated areas. Securing control over the oil-rich city of Basra is of prime concern for al-Sadr, which could explain why he agreed to the "removal" of his top leader in Basra, clearing a path for him to insert a stronger loyalist.

As al-Sadr proceeds in efforts to purge his militia and political bloc of dissidents, he will be counting on the assurances he has received from Tehran that a U.S.-Iranian negotiated blueprint for Iraq will involve implementing a new political order in Baghdad that will safeguard the interests of the al-Sadrite movement.

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