Rival Militias Threaten Iraq's South

Rival Militias Threaten Iraq's South
October 26th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Rival Militias Threaten Iraq's South

Rival Militias Threaten Iraq's South
Media: The Associated Press
Date: 25 October 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq_The intensifying battle between Iraq's strongest Shiite
militias _ the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigades _ threatens to destabilize
Iraq's oil-rich south and compound chaos in the capital. The outcome also
could decide whether Iraq stays whole or breaks up.

The militias have become the largest security threat to a country already
rocked by more than three years of attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents on U.S.
and Iraqi forces and the Shiite population.

Despite repeated vows to crush the militias, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
has resisted U.S. pressure to move against the groups and their roaming
deaths squads because he draws most of his support from the politicians who
run them.

The Mahdi Army and Badr Brigades have repeatedly clashed since the 2003
overthrow of Saddam Hussein, most recently in the southern city of Amarah.
Mahdi militiamen briefly took control of the city this month and fought
gunbattles with the Badr Brigades-dominated police that killed 31 and
wounded dozens.

"That was the worst time we had to go through in the city," said
Abdul-Hussein Adnan, a 37-year-old teacher from Amarah. "Given the high
number of casualties and the tribal nature of the city, I expect things to
get worse. It's impossible in Amarah for someone to be killed and his
killers not hunted down and killed in revenge."

In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and the major southern metropolis,
tensions between the two armed Shiite groups simmers constantly,
occasionally breaking into conflict.

The militias also have a long history of suspicion and mistrust in the
Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Last year, Badr Brigades supporters burned part of the Najaf offices used by
the Mahdi Army and its leader, radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Mahdi militiamen retaliated across the south by sacking the offices of the
Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's largest
Shiite party which has the Badr Brigades as its military wing.

SCIRI officials have deep ties to Iran, where many of them spent years in
exile during Saddam's rule.

Although enmity between the two militias dates to the 1990s, it is now
rooted in the desire of their political sponsors to dominate Iraq's Shiite
community. They focus particularly on the Shiite heartland south of Baghdad,
a region stretching over nine provinces that is home to Iraq's holiest
Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbala and much of the country's oil wealth.

The rivalry could shatter the unity of the Shiite community at a time when
many of its members feel threatened by the Sunni Arab-led insurgency and are
alarmed by what they see as a gradual shift of U.S. support away from them
and toward Sunnis. The Sunni Arab minority oppressed the Shiite majority for
decades before Saddam's ouster.

A Shiite official who has regular contact with Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, said al-Sistani was discreetly trying
to defuse tensions between the Badr Brigades and the Mahdi Army.

"His eminence does not want to see Shiite-Shiite fighting because the only
losers will be the Shiites themselves," the official told The Associated
Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to
the media.

The Badr Brigades is seldom mentioned when the United States calls for
al-Maliki to disband armed groups, perhaps because the Americans still see
the militia's political leadership as a center of power that can be swayed
to U.S. policy goals.

Created in Iran in the 1980s and once headed by SCIRI leader Abdul-Aziz
al-Hakim, Iraq's most powerful politician, the Badr Brigades is suspected of
assassinating Saddam loyalists, senior members of his outlawed Baath Party
and Sunni figures suspected of supporting the insurgency.

Better organized than the Mahdi Army, tightly knit and secretive, the Badr
Brigades is thought to have largely stayed away from the wholesale sectarian
killings blamed on the Mahdi Army since the bombing of a revered Shiite
shrine in Samarra last February.

SCIRI leaders maintain their militia was dissolved and turned into a
political movement. However, it is widely known that the Iranian-trained
fighters remain organized as a militia and have infiltrated police forces.

The Badr fighters' ability to avoid negative media attention has prompted
charges by al-Sadr's followers that the rival militia is working with the
U.S. military to drag the Mahdi Army into a fight it cannot win.

On Wednesday, U.S. and Iraqi troops raided Sadr City, the Mahdi Army's
stronghold in Baghdad, in what al-Sadr supporters fear could be the start of
an all-out offensive against the militia.

"There is a huge conspiracy supervised by the U.S. occupation to target the
Sadrists," said lawmaker Hassan Shanshal, a supporter of al-Sadr. "There are
daily provocations by the Americans."

Looming ahead, however, is a battle the two sides will certainly fight _ a
contest over nationwide local elections for provincial councils.

The last vote in 2005 was boycotted by Sunni Arabs, about 20 percent of the
population, and al-Sadr showed little interest in taking part after a year
mostly spent battling U.S. troops.

That allowed SCIRI to take control of almost all of southern Iraq's
provincial councils as well as those in Baghdad. The Sadrists are eager to
wrest away political hold on local government.

SCIRI has thrown its weight behind a federated Iraq in which southern
provinces are joined in a region similar to an autonomous Kurdish area in
northern Iraq. Fearing isolation in the mostly desert center of the country,
Sunni Arabs see federalism as a recipe for Iraq's breakup and suspect an
Iranian hand.

Al-Sadr, who has often derided his SCIRI rivals for their close ties to
Iran, also is opposed to federalism.

Federalism is enshrined in the constitution adopted in a referendum a year
ago. Parliament this month agreed to allow creation of federal regions,
empowering provincial councils elected in the next local polls to initiate
such action, subject to the approval of voters.

"We will not be dragged into a fight," said Nasser al-Saadi, a Sadrist
lawmaker. "Instead, we will prepare for the elections and, when we take
control of local governments, we will not allow federalism."

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