A potential Pandora's box opens in Iraq on news of Muqtada al-Sadr's "exile."
Will his Mehdi Army split? Could an "Intifada"-style uprising be on the cards in Sadr City?
US Administration is reporting that Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Shiite Mehdi Army militia and key parliamentary coalition partner for the Maliki government, has fled Iraq for Iran.The reports, which say he fled some weeks ago, have yet to be confirmed by Iraq officials, who until recently were reporting him in Iraq. If this is true it could have potentially dramatic consequences for the stability of the government and the effectiveness of the clampdown.
The radical al-Sadr has feared for his own safety since the announcement of the US clampdown and the arrest of many of his top officials. He appeared to acquiesce to pressure and has ordered his militia to stand down its weapons and cooperate. Until recently, it appears that the majority of the militias members have complied.
The militia which has effectively governed Sadr City, a huge Baghdad Shia suburb of 2 million, both for social services and militarily. Some estimates of its strength have put its current numbers at over 100,000. It is also a strong force in the Shia south of the country. It is the militia at the centre of accusations of receiving Iranian arms and killing US soldiers. Most of its operations are sectarian and is held responsible for the murder squads that have carried out the tit-for-tat killings of Sunnis. It has also substantially infiltrated the police and Iraqi Army, as well as government offices. Cracking down on it has proved highly sensitive, until recently PM Maliki gave his support to a general crackdown on militias.
There are reports that splits have emerged between more extremist elements and al-Sadr over his order to stand down. Al- Sadr had a reputation for calling for the withdrawal of US troops and he has lost face over his collaboration with the US and Iraqi government. Despite posing it as a temporary retreat until after the clampdown has ended, members of the Mehdi army will be loathe to subject themselves to US searches and control. They will hate giving up their control of Sadr City and many are itching to both take on the Americans and to resume full-scale attacks on Sunnis, especially in light of the failure of the US to halt the upsurge in outrageous, sectarian atrocities carried out on Shia neighbourhoods recently. Whether al-Sadr can continue to hold back his members or he losses control of the forces is a big question. He may possibly decide to rescind his support for the US clampdown, but this depends on a decision from his Iranian hosts and backers. The more the US goads and attacks Iran, the more likely this becomes. It may also be that he may decide to withdraw his parliamentary support for PM Maliki, thus robbing it of a majority and putting the stability of the Iraqi government in question during this critical stage of developments.
Despite all the barbs and attacks of the al-Sadr and the Mehdi, in reality the US is very dependent upon them for the effectiveness of their clampdown. They are already having difficulty dealing with a much stronger Sunni insurgency than they had expected. Without al-Sadr compliance, they will have to take on a much larger, better equipped and popular Mehdi militia than before. It could well prove impossible. Moreover, anger among the Shia population against the perceived impotency of the "surge" to control the increased sectarian attacks is pushing Mehdi members into action. Failure to prove effective in stopping sectarian attacks ad concentrating on attacking the Mehdi militia, could be perceived by Shiites as stripping them of their last and most effective line of defence.
The situation in Sadr City is now highly combustible. US heavy-handedness there and/or any operational errors leading to civilian casualties could lead to popular unrest. The US could potentially be faced with a Shia Intifada, which with an armed population and a massive Mehdi Army would prove impossible to control. Any uprising in Sadr City would become a cause célèbre for the whole Shia community in Iraq and across the Middle East. It would quickly inflame the whole of the South of the country, spiralling totally out of the control of British forces and it would embolden the Sunni insurgents further.
The news of Muqtada al-Sadr's supposed "exile" in Tehran is not something the US should be gloating about. It potentially destabilises an already volatile situation, which easily risks spiralling completely out of their control.