Iraq: Mahdi Army Fades Away

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April28,2008: After a month of fighting, the Mahdi Army has disappeared from the streets of Basra, the largest city in the south. The army and police are everywhere, and people are providing information on where Mahdi Army personnel are hiding out, and the locations of their weapons caches. Up north, in the Sadr City section of east Baghdad, the Mahdi Army is still fighting hard. But the army and police have the upper hand, and are pushing the Shia militiamen back block by block. Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al Sadr has responded by threatening to order his men to go after American troops if the government does not back off. That's won't work, because the Mahdi Army is not particularly skillful, and not very united either. He recently ordered his troops to stop fighting Iraqi soldiers and police, and concentrate on the Americans. The Iraqi security forces have not reciprocated, and continue coming after the Mahdi Army.

The dozen or so factions of the Mahdi Army vary in their loyalty to Sadr, or to political solutions. Several of the Mahdi Army factions are basically criminal gangs masquerading as religious zealots. Sadr denies he is a pawn of Iran, but as Mahdi Army houses are captured, more Iranian weapons and equipment show up, as well as religious propaganda from Iran. Iraqi president Maliki has told Sadr that the offensive would halt if the Mahdi Army surrenders all its weapons, stops attacking, or trying to infiltrate (by joining) the security forces, and hands over members wanted for crimes. So far, Sadr refuses, probably because many of his followers would turn on him if he tried. But Sadr also realizes that the Iraqi soldiers and police are capable, eventually, of grinding the Mahdi Army into nothingness. Another month or so of fighting and the Mahdi Army will be no more.

Al Sadr, and many of his followers, see all this violence against them as a plot by the Badr Organization to be the last major militia standing. The Badr Organization began as a Shia anti-Saddam exile group, in Iran, a quarter century ago. But the Badr "Brigade" renounced the use of force, formed a political party, and urged its Brigade members to join the army and police. This they did, and many believe these former militiamen are still loyal to their Badr Brigade bosses. But the Badr leaders insist that the Brigade is no more, and the Badr Organization is strictly political. In any event, the Badr people have been more cooperative with the government than the Sadr crew.

Meanwhile, Sunni Arab politicians have returned to the government. These Sunni Arab political parties had walked out of the government nine months ago, angry over the failure to guarantee their rights, safety and share of the oil revenue. Since then, the Sunni Arab terrorism effort has been shattered, with many of the Sunni Arab terror groups switched sides and joined the war against al Qaeda.

Iraq is trying to get its Arab neighbors to forgive some $65 billion in Saddam era debts, without much success. Most of the money was borrowed in the 1980s, when Iraq was at war with Iran. Iraq has already had some $65 billion in debts, mostly to Russia and European nations, forgiven. But the Arabs want their money. The other Arab states in the region see Shia dominated Iraq as a potential ally of Iran, and not "real" Arabs. Conservative Sunni Arab clerics regularly preach that Shia Moslems (like most Iraqis and nearly all Iranians) are heretics and not to be trusted.

The government is openly proclaiming the decline, if not complete destruction, of Sunni Arab terrorist group al Qaeda, at least in Iraq. There are far fewer suicide bomb attacks, and most of them are individuals wearing explosive belts, rather that more elaborate car or truck bombs. Moreover, the targets are all "soft" (easy to reach civilians). Al Qaeda is trying to be selective, going after the leaders of Sunni Arab groups that switched sides in the past few months. It is this kind of brutality that caused Sunni Arab groups to turn on al Qaeda, but that kind of logic is lost on the remaining terrorists.

Up north, Turkish warplanes and artillery continue to hit suspected PKK bases along the Iraqi border. The Kurdish government in the north protests, but quietly. No one in the region wants to get into a squabble with the Turks, especially not the Turkish army.

 

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