In Iraq's South, A Mission Has Dual Aims

In Iraq's South, A Mission Has Dual Aims
June 16th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: In Iraq's South, A Mission Has Dual Aims

In Iraq's South, A Mission Has Dual Aims
New York Times
June 16, 2008
Pg. 9
By Andrew E. Kramer and Alissa J. Rubin
BAGHDAD — In an operation with military and political objectives, the Iraqi Army continued to assemble troops in and around the southern city of Amara on Sunday.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki offered an amnesty to militants in the city who were willing to surrender, and he also offered to buy back heavy weapons from militia fighters. Similar offers in the past few months have presaged military operations against Shiite or Sunni militias in Basra, the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.
As in Basra and Sadr City, Amara is dominated by the movement of the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Mr. Maliki’s government has appeared eager to crush at least Mr. Sadr’s militia, if not his movement.
With provincial elections scheduled for the fall, both the government and Mr. Sadr also appeared to be maneuvering for political advantage.
On Friday, Mr. Sadr announced that he was separating the political and military wings of his movement, apparently in anticipation of a proposal, expected to be approved this month, that would bar parties or movements with armed wings from participating in the provincial elections.
On Sunday, a senior aide to Mr. Sadr said that candidates supporting Mr. Sadr would run in the fall elections, but as independents or with other political parties, rather than under the cleric’s banner.
The government of Mr. Maliki also seemed to have made significant political calculations in apparently selecting Amara as the site of its next military operation.
With Iraqi soldiers setting up checkpoints and preparing to take control of the city, Mr. Maliki could be hoping to weaken, at least temporarily, the political branch of Mr. Sadr’s movement and solidify his own hold on power by appearing decisive and in control.
Amara is the capital of Maysan Province, the only province in Iraq where the local government is run by politicians aligned with Mr. Sadr.
Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, has also become ensconced in Amara, a city in a rural, marshy region of southern Iraq along the Iranian border, where Iraqi officials say that a poisonous blend of militia lawlessness and weapons smuggling from Iran has created a chaotic situation.
Traffic thinned Sunday on the streets of the city. Many of those who did venture out in cars said they feared American airstrikes.
Some residents said militia members had already fled Amara in anticipation of a military operation. Iraqi commanders said some militia leaders had escaped to Amara earlier this year during the fighting in nearby Basra.
Haider Karim, a 35-year-old taxi driver, said civilians would bear the brunt of a military operation because militia members were already gone.
“The security forces must follow these criminals wherever they go because they terrified innocent people,” he said. “We don’t want to be terrified again by the warplanes and troops.”
On Sunday, Mr. Maliki gave militias in Amara three days to take advantage of his amnesty offer and to surrender rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns, mortars, rockets and other heavy weapons. He said the government would “give the outlaws and the members of the organized crime groups a last chance to review their stance.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Mr. Sadr’s movement said that it would take part in the provincial elections, but did not plan to run a slate of candidates.
“We will participate in the next elections, but there is no Sadrist list,” said Luaa Smaisem, the spokesman. “We will participate as individuals. Also, we will support a lot of independent nominations from another list.”
Mr. Sadr, a protean force on the Iraqi political scene, appears to be restructuring his movement to avoid being affected by the proposed law that would prevent parties or movements with armed wings from participating in the election of provincial council members.
The proposed ban is clearly aimed at Mr. Sadr’s movement and its affiliation with the Mahdi Army, said Saad al-Hadithy, a political science professor at Baghdad University.
“Therefore, the Sadr movement decided to participate in this election through individuals who represent this movement and still have loyalty to it, but who are using their own names,” he said.
Basim Sharif, a member of Parliament from the Shiite Fadhila Party, shared this view of Mr. Sadr’s political tactics. “The Sadr movement declared that they will participate with new entities or with independent individuals, and this of course is to avoid being banned from the next elections because of their militia,” he said.
The Sadr movement has broad popularity among the poor, and it has been expected to do well in the provincial elections, most likely at the expense of the Shiite parties loyal to Mr. Maliki.
The recent military operations by government forces in Basra and Sadr City have weakened Mr. Sadr, said a Western diplomat who is closely watching the situation. But Iraqi political commentators said Mr. Sadr remained a unique populist force in Iraq.
“The government says that it’s not targeting a specific party,” Mr. Sharif said. “But the most targeted is the Sadr movement, because of its popularity and its resistance to the occupation.”
Suadad al-Salhy and Mudhafer al-Husaini contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Amara.

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