CLASH OF THE TITANS

Iraq, Iran, the USA and Muqtada Al-Sadr

Recently, the relative peace reigning in Iraq was shattered in a spate of violence incited by clashes between the ruling Iraqi government/coalition forces and the militants of the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. When I say relative I mean it in a strictly literal sense, because Iraq as we all know, has not been a peaceful place for a long time.

Events have culminated in the latest statement of the cleric who threatened ‘open war’ if the coalition forces did not take the ‘peaceful route’ and stop the violence. He also said that the Iraqi government should stop its current route of action or risk being seen in a similar light to Iraq’s previous regime of Saddam Hussein. Already hundreds of people have been killed in the Baghdad area of Sadr City (yeah, both the cleric and the city he controls bear the same name; I wonder what the story there is…) because of heavy gun fighting between militants and troops and a number of unfortunate bombings which have claimed hundreds.

This follows a recent subsiding of violence in the region where the cleric himself called for peace and commanded his troops to refrain from any sort of attack. Also, US claims that the troop surge had an impact on calming the country down could have some truth in it as well; indeed, this is the main reason behind the success of John McCain’s presidential candidacy so far. Well we’ll see how that goes pretty soon I suppose. Getting back to the point, all this brings us to the question; why did this latest spate of violence start in the first place?

The reason is simple; the Iraqi government wants all the Mehdi Army’s weapons. Why? Because they obviously feel threatened by the presence of a large armed force in such close proximity to their main base of operation which is perfectly natural I suppose. But does the Mehdi Army really have the capacity to overthrow the existing government? Based on my casual observation I would have to say I am not certain.

But consider US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s surprise visit to Baghdad on the 20th of April; in statements made during that visit her comments urged Iraq’s neighbors to ‘show more support for the existing government of Nouri Maliki’ that the conflict within its borders was an ‘internal issue’ but never addresses Muqtada Al-Sadr’s comments directly.

They are a direct indication that prevailing powers would really like it if the Mehdi Army were peacefully removed from the Iraqi picture. Ms. Rice also said that she is witnessing a ‘coalescing of Iraqi politics’ and that ‘Sunnis, Shias and Kurds are working together better than they ever did before’. So it would appear that the Mehdi Army could be the final barrier in the obstacle course towards reaching a idyllically peaceful Iraq.

But why provoke the militants when they were already on a peaceful footing? Are the Iraqi forces taking preventive measures before Muqtada Al-Sadr manages to consolidate his power base in Sadr City and truly pose a threat to the existing government? It would be a tough ask on his part, chiefly because Iraqi forces are backed by the powerful western coalition headed by the US military, so wouldn’t he need some external backing similar in power?

Of course he would.

And this is the point where most would bring Iran into the picture.

Muqtada Al-Sadr is undoubtedly the single most powerful non-US backed leader outside Al-Qaeda to rise up in Iraq. And let us not forget that the US has long since been accusing Iran, which is a Shia Islamic nation of supporting Shia militants in order to destabilize US interests in Iraq. In addition, the cleric has shown his capabilities in efficient decision making and good governance through his actions and is widely regarded as the un-official leader of the majority Shia community in Iraq. So which way does the cookie crumble?

Will Iran, proclaimed to be the ‘most powerful country in the world’ by President Ahamadinejad at a recently held military showcase rally, continue to allow the presence of the US at their doorstep? Is it really possible as the skeptics believe that a nation as powerful in their home region and as aware of threats to that power as Iran would have sat back and just watched as their ‘enemies’ (namely the anti-nuclear-enrichment West) tried to seize and consolidate power in one of the richest oil producing countries that just happened to be Iran’s neighbor, and not do anything about it?

Iran could have launched their own campaign to seize economic control in Iraq, and the source of their funding could have been Muqtada Al-Sadr. Or Al-Sadr could have started off launching his own campaign and later have garnered the support of Iraq’s rich neighbor. Or maybe such an arrangement has not even occurred yet and never will, which does not speak of big chance for the Mehdi Army’s success, but that is an unlikely scenario.

What remains certain is that Iraqi security forces could be provoking a hornet’s nest that could unleash a fresh hurricane of bloody violence throughout the troubled regime and might even lead to larger, more ominous things. With the US and Iran seemingly headed for loggerheads, this battle for power in the middle of Iraq could greatly magnify in significance.

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