Iraqi Militias Disbanding Under Pressure?
Could the Mahdi Army and other key Iraqi “militias” disband? Signs are pointing in that direction.
Iraq’s top leadership council issued a call over the weekend:
A top leadership council called Saturday on Iraqi parties to disband their militias or risk being barred from taking part in elections and participating in political life. A statement by the “Political Council for National Unity” also urged parties that withdrew from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to send back their ministers to the cabinet. The council is made up of President Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, the two vice presidents – Sunni Arab Tariq al-Hashemi and Shiite Adil Abdul-Mahdi – as well as al-Maliki, parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani and leaders of the parliamentary factions. The council’s decisions have no force of law but are significant because they represent powerful political interests.
In the statement, the council called on all parties “to immediately disband their militias and hand over their weapons to the government…as a condition for their participation in the political process and elections.” Since 2004, several attempts have been made to convince Iraqi parties to disband armed groups they sponsor, but with limited results.
Most Iraqi political parties are believed to maintain ties to armed groups although none acknowledges maintaining a “militia.” For example, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a powerful Shiite party, says it has disbanded its Badr Brigade militia and transformed it into a political organization. However, former Badr militiamen have joined the security forces and the militia is widely believed to maintain a clandestine command structure. At least one police commando unit is made up exclusively of members of al-Maliki’s Dawa party.
So, this call is logically not only futile but hypocritical as well, since the Badr Brigades aren’t going away.
James Hider of the Times of London, though, reports that the most important rival warlord may be prepared to step down.
Iraq’s largest and most dangerous militia will voluntarily disband if Shia scholars advise its leader to do so, officials said yesterday — a dramatic move that could quell much of the fighting in the war-torn country. Aides to Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr said that he would send delegations to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a moderate religious leader in Najaf, and to senior clerics in Iran to consult on whether he should stand down his 60,000-strong al-Mahdi Army.
The sudden announcement — the first time that the rebellious cleric had offered to disband his forces — came as US and Iraqi troops were poised for a key offensive into his Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City. Yesterday streams of refugees were pouring out of Sadr City as automatic gunfire and mortar bomb blasts ripped through the giant slum that is home to 2.5 million people. Terrified residents scuttled down side streets as tanks trundled along the main thoroughfares, shooting at guerrillas. A massive American and Iraqi security presence had ringed the area, with police and soldiers guarding every exit with many predicting a final, bloody showdown as popular support drained from al-Mahdi Army.
The position of Hojatoleslam al-Sadr, whose fighters fought government forces to a standstill in Basra, was looking precarious. His former erstwhile ally Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister who personally led the Basra crackdown, saw his standing bolstered by his tough approach to the militias. Despite the inconclusive results of his Basra offensive, Mr al-Maliki has refused to back down and this weekend stitched together a rare consensus of Kurds, Sunnis and Shias to back a law banning from future elections any party that maintains a militia.
Hider hasn’t been a cheerleader for the war, so I take his reports seriously. If this pans out, it’s welcome news, indeed.
Austin Bay, for one, isn’t surprised by any of this. He cites his personal experience and several media reports in support for an argument that the NYT and other “defeatists” simply aren’t grasping the major progress being made on the ground.
Obviously, I hope that’s right. We’ve had enough false hope over the years that curbing one’s enthusiasm seems warranted. But maybe David Brooks has it right: “There has been political progress. It just doesn’t look the way we expected it to.”
UPDATE: It appears that Sadr is off the hook: “Iraq’s top Shiite religious leaders have told anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr not to disband his Mehdi Army, an al-Sadr spokesman said Monday amid fresh fighting in the militia’s Baghdad strongholds.”
Photo: “Mahdi Army militiamen march in Basra” via Michael J. Totten. Copyright Nabil al-Jurani.