Iraqi support for militias, religious parties drops

‘Silent majority’ caught in crossfire

Iraqi Parliament members from several political blocs went to Baghdad’s Sadr City last week hoping to stop the violence that has trapped civilians in the crossfire. The delegation was accompanied by representatives of Moqtada al-Sadr, in what some called a lobbying effort to get the Iraqi government to stop its campaign against Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. However, virtually the entire Iraqi political spectrum has called for elimination of all militias, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, once thought on the ropes, has won increased support for moving against private armed groups.

“It was a very bold step of Maliki’s to take on these militias, so we have to say he’s doing a good job,” said a spokesman for the Iraqi Accord Front, the largest Sunni bloc. Like most Iraqis, this group blames the Mahdi Army for many of the sectarian killings in recent years. The Accord Front said it is rejoining the government following a nine-month boycott.

These developments are part of a jockeying for position in provincial elections set for Oct. 1. Iraq Communist Party spokesperson Salam Ali told the World, “The Sadrists want to maintain their militia until the forthcoming elections. Their empty anti-occupation rhetoric is used as a cover to achieve this aim.” The militia activity, Ali said, is primarily aimed at “settling scores with rivals.”

Actually, he added, the divisive violence “plays into the hands of the occupiers at a time when a unified national stance is needed to deal with the highly important negotiations with the U.S.” — a reference to the Bush administration’s push for an agreement locking U.S. presence in Iraq for years to come.

The Iraqi Communist Party issued a statement April 18 supporting national efforts for “establishing the rule of law” and a modern, democratic Iraqi state, and called for “dissolution of militias and limiting the possession of arms to the state only.”

Calling for “putting an end to bloodshed,” it warned against excessive military actions and said more emphasis must be given to political initiatives and “economic and social measures that would provide an encouraging message of hope to the populations of downtrodden areas.”

Some in the Bush White House have seized on the Iraqi infighting to push confrontation with Iran (perhaps timed to help McCain this fall). But experts say claims that Iran is backing Sadr are baseless.

A New York Times report last month pointed out, “As Iraqi government soldiers took control of the last areas of Basra from Sadr’s militia … Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, took the unusual step of expressing strong support for the government’s position and described Sadr’s fighters as outlaws.”

The United States and Iran were “on the same side” in Basra, the Times article said, attributing it to “the logic of self-interest.”

Iraqis widely believe Iran’s Ahmadinejad regime — like the U.S. — is involved in Iraq to advance its own interests, at the expense of the Iraqi people. There is “no question” that Iran played a role in promoting Islamic excesses and conflicts in Basra, Ali said. But “eventually it had to put pressure to restrain” these forces. “If it had developed into all-out confrontation between Islamic groups, it would undermine [Iran’s] influence.”

While Sadr continues to have a base among the most impoverished, Ali said there is a big shift in mood against the Mahdi Army. “A silent majority is caught in the crossfire,” he said. Missiles fired into the Green Zone invite attacks by the U.S., leading to killings of innocent people, he noted.

Commentators say support for religious parties overall is declining in Iraq. “Many are holding Islamic groups, especially those in power, responsible for the mess they find themselves in,” Ali said. “All the major sectarian blocs are breaking up.”

Fighting among Shiite groups boiled over in Basra last month. Close to Iran, Basra has Iraq’s only seaport. Ninety percent of Iraq’s oil is exported through that port.

Ali noted that months ago, representatives from a cross-section of Basra’s political forces — ranging from Sadr supporters to Communists — met with Maliki and “begged him” to end the criminal activities, including militia violence, oil smuggling and attacks on women, that were ravaging the province.

But Sadr’s forces themselves were widely accused of having employed racketeering and other criminal means to take control of the port and its substantial revenues. This was accompanied by Taliban-style rule. Nearly 130 women were killed in Basra last year for not following Islamic dress codes and similar “transgressions.”

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the biggest Sunni party, faces problems with the “Awakening” groups that have been cooperating with, and funded by, the U.S. These groups, which include tribal elements and former Baathists, plan to run candidates in the provincial elections.

As the shakeout unfolds, the Communist Party has joined with the National Democratic Party and Arab Socialist movement to launch a campaign for a democratic secular state. “It will bring together all constituencies of the democratic movement in Iraq,” Ali said. “We believe there is big potential for that — we sense a new mood among the people.”

suewebb@pww.org