October 18, 2006

Iraqi prime minister and the militias

There was a news story reported by the Associated Press today that concerns me. "Iraq orders US to release Shiite activist" details the release of a senior member of Muqtada As-Sadr organization at the "order" of Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki.

According to the story, Shaykh Mazin As-Sa'di was detained by American forces in the heavily Shi'a Al-Kazimiyah section of Baghdad. A spokesman for As-Sadr claimed that the shaykh was arrested to provoke his jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi) militia in to an armed confrontation. He further said it will not work because As-Sadr has counseled restraint. As well he should - the last time he tried an armed confrontation with U.S. forces (May 2004 in An-Najaf), his militia was decimated.

What is more disturbing is the prime minister's reluctance to confront any militia in general and the As-Sadr militia in particular. This further plays into the Sunni disdain for Al-Maliki, who they openly refer to as "the Iranian." Al-Maliki is a devout Shi'a and a member of the Dawa' party, pro-Iranian Shi'a hardliners.

As far as militias in general, he openly disagrees with the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General George Casey. Casey is on record that the militias - all militias - must be disbanded. He has relayed that belief to Al-Maliki where is seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Casey claims that Al-Maliki understands that the militias need to be disbanded, just not now. Based on my experience with the Iraqis (and Arabs for that matter), this bukrah (tomorrow) attitude is in essence a "no."

This is troubling. Many observers believe that the As-Sadr militia is one of the main factors in the increasing sectarian violence that threatens to plunge Iraq into an all out civil war. American forces are being caught in the crossfire, as well as possibly being directly targeted by these Shi'a hardliners.

In the past, Al-Maliki has bristled following American raids into Sadr City, a strong hold of the Jaysh Al-Mahdi, at one point apologizing for such a raid and promising that it would not happen again.

Meanwhile, Baghdad remains a sectarian battleground. It's time for Al-Maliki to start being part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Otherwise, he has to go.