Al-Sadr's motives mystify

Shiite leader seems to aid security plan, but reasons unclear

February 25, 2007|By New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq --Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric and founder of the Mahdi Army militia, discovered recently that two of his commanders had created DVDs of their men killing Sunnis in Baghdad.

Documents suggested that they had received money from Iran. So he suspended them and stripped them of power, said two Mahdi leaders in Sadr City, the heart of al-Sadr's support here in the capital.

But did he do so as part of his cooperation with the new security plan for Baghdad, which aims to quell the sectarian violence tormenting the city? Because his men had been disloyal, taking orders from Iran, whose support he values but whose control he fights? Or was it just for show - the act of an image-conscious leader who grasped the risk of graphic videos and ties to Tehran and wanted to stave off direct American action against him?

Al-Sadr has been the great destabilizer in Iraq since 2003, wielding power on the streets and in the ruling Shiite bloc, thwarting the Americans and playing out at least a temporary alliance with Iran.

With the new security plan for Iraq under way, every question about al-Sadr's motives touches on a different facet of Iraq's future. Al-Sadr finds himself under pressure from several sources. One is his popular Shiite base, which demands that he protect it from devastating Sunni attacks. Another is Iran, with which he has had long but difficult ties. Then there are renegade factions of his own militia that resent his attempts to move into the political mainstream.

Finally, there are the Americans, who have accused Iran of supplying Shiite militias, including al-Sadr's, with a deadly roadside bomb known as an explosively formed projectile, or EFP, which has killed an increasing number of American soldiers.

It is not clear whether the Americans will move directly against al-Sadr. The U.S. has demanded that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki act forcefully against the Mahdi Army; al-Maliki, however, owes much of his political strength in the ruling Shiite coalition to al-Sadr's backing.

For now, American and Iraqi officials say that al-Sadr seems to be cooperating with the effort to pacify Baghdad, ordering his men not to fight even as U.S. armored vehicles roll into Mahdi strongholds in eastern Baghdad. And he seems to be cleaning house of fighters who could taint him by association with Iran or with death squad killings. The assassinations and mass kidnapping of Sunnis that are often attributed to his militia seem to have decreased.

"Muqtada al-Sadr said to ... cooperate with the government," said Hazim al-Araji, head of the al-Sadr office in western Baghdad. "So no actions have been taken."

Al-Sadr has assisted the joint Iraqi-American campaign against parts of his militia, signaling whom to arrest and telling others to flee, said two Mahdi commanders and a Shiite politician in Baghdad. On his own, they said, al-Sadr has "frozen" more than 40 commanders, including about 20 linked to Iran.

The al-Sadr aides said the moves were part of an organizational overhaul. Though al-Sadr's whereabouts are unknown - the Americans say he is in Iran, which his aides and Iran dispute - a new Mahdi general for all of Baghdad has been named for the first time, they said. Al-Sadr has also selected new commanders for east and west Baghdad.

The al-Sadr aides and commanders who described al-Sadr's recent moves during separate interviews in Najaf and Baghdad refused to give their names, saying they had not been authorized to speak and feared reprisals from current or former members of the militia.

They said that al-Sadr allowed the arrests of members of his own militia, or suspended them himself, because evidence showed that they had not obeyed his orders and because he wanted to show Iran, U.S. officials and his militia that he was a strong leader who must be respected and feared.

What al-Sadr's organization receives from Iran remains a mystery. Some support comes through ties to Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon that also receives Iranian support. Beirut has an al-Sadr office, and Mahdi commanders say they have been sending fighters to Hezbollah at least since summer.

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