After weeks of intense fighting in the Shiite district of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, the Iraqi government and forces of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr reached a jittery truce, believed to have been brokered with the mediation of Iran.
The bloody conflict was a byproduct of a highly contentious crackdown on Shiite militias by the Iraqi government that began in Basra in late March.
The deadly street-to-street fighting, aided by U.S. firepower, proved costly for both sides. Weeks of fighting led to hundreds of deaths, countless wounded, and a population of over 2 million largely isolated and without basic commodities.
Under the ceasefire between the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and the Sadrist bloc, a list of 14 points were agreed upon, which in essence gave both sides much-needed breathing space in a rapidly unpopular encounter.
After a period of hostility post-2003, the Sadrists were initially swayed into the political fold and formed a shaky alliance with other majority Shiite powers, but later boycotted their six ministerial positions.
The Mehdi Army, which in the past has waged fierce battles against U.S. forces on a number of occasions, has enjoyed a mostly unchallenged role in the new Iraq as the Shiite-dominated government is weary of inducing Shiite-on-Shiite violence while reliant upon the Sadrist bloc in the ruling coalition. Unfortunately, the long-term dilemma of dealing with the Mehdi Army was only delayed.
The controversial ideals of al-Sadr and his bitter stance toward the U.S. presence in Iraq have often proved a nasty thorn in an already-fractious political landscape. The decision by the Iraqi government to launch operation ‘Knights Assault’ was formulated for a number of key reasons.
With the Sadrist movement enjoying substantial influence in the Shiite south, Nouri al-Maliki’s tough approach was designed to undermine the group with the pivotal upcoming provincial elections in October fast approaching.
The well-armed Mehdi Army is widely known to receive training, arms, and funding from Tehran. With an Iranian regime intent on derailing U.S. forces, a proxy war has been raging in Iraq. Efforts by Baghdad to drive out al-Sadr, under pressure from the U.S. administration, is designed to send a warning message to Iran and show that Baghdad will no longer tolerate free spirits hampering national reconciliation.
As al-Maliki launched his assault on outlaws and militias to many a surprise, it introduced much hope that Baghdad may finally have the valor to deal with core issues.
Al-Sadr’s form of Shiite radicalism coupled with Arab nationalism has often formed a political barrier. Sidelining al-Sadr from the political fold may consolidate support of Kurds, whose key demands of federalism and a referendum on Kirkuk was heavily opposed by the Shiite cleric.
On their part, Sunnis naturally welcomed the advent of an impartial administration. The Sunnis have often complained of a lack of protection and bias from a largely Shiite security force. Such a move is seen as vital to strengthening the political arm of the administration.
However, contrary to the new atmosphere of optimism, the recent battles have also highlighted the fractious nature of the armed forces. With Iraqi armed forces dominated by Shiites and pockets of al-Sadr sympathizers, hundreds of troops deserted fighting on the first day in Basra alone.
Although the crackdown was a positive turning point, it also highlighted that Iraq was not ready to fight its own battles and was forced to rely on indirect U.S. airpower to overcome militants.
The cease-fire may also in essence reflect the fact that the Iraqi army, which only just launched a crucial new offensive in Mosul against al-Qaeda militants, is unable to fight on multiple fronts.
In Sadr City, an ever-present battleground, sporadic clashes continued. Further suffering will unfortunately persist regardless of any truce. Militias continue to act as a time bomb, which will take more than weeks of infighting to clear. In either case, however deadly, Baghdad may have no choice but to carry on the battle if Iraq, let alone the U.S., can escape the current quagmire.
The U.S. surge, which has resulted in greater security, is owed to a large extent to the cease-fire declared previously by the Mehdi Army, and long-term peace is tied to the fate of Sadrist forces.
Whether the new calm is a result of the deadly storm or just a deadly calm before a new storm is open to debate. A revered religious figurehead or a 60,000-strong militia cannot be dislodged all too easily.