When news first broke on July 1 that a Sunni MP–Taiseer Najah al-Mashhadani of the Iraqi Islamic Party headed by Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi–had been kidnapped, the political implications were pretty muted.
On July 3rd, however, Mashhadani’s political allies asserted that she had been abducted by Shiite militias linked to Moqtada al-Sadr. According to a July 3, 2006 Associated Press report:
A member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in the 275-member legislature, suggested that Tayseer al-Mashhadani was kidnapped by Shiite militias and said the legislative boycott would continue until she is released.
Noureddine al-Hyali said the political group had information that al-Mashhadani was being held somewhere near eastern Baghdad’s Ur neighborhood — a predominantly Shiite area that is controlled by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army militia.
“We got this information from Iraqi security forces as well as the Americans,” al-Hyali said.
According to a July 4, 2006 Washington Post report, the Sadrists deny any role in the kidnapping.
A spokesman for Sadr, Abdul Daragi, denied that the Mahdi Army had kidnapped Mashhadani and declined to comment on any discussions with the government.
The US has been pressuring Maliki to crack down on Shiite militias, however, and the abduction of Mashhadani now threatens to become the spark that ignites a broader confrontation between the US and the Mahdi Army.
According to a July 5, 2006 Reuters report, US forces were quickly mobilized to participate in the hunt for Mashhadani.
U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said a major aerial and ground operation involving U.S. and Iraqi troops had been launched to find her.
“They conducted several operations last night but they did not produce results,” he told a news briefing in Baghdad. “This is an attempt to thwart the road toward democracy and the rule of law. We will continue to collect intelligence to ensure her safe return and those with her.”
It is interesting to note that Mashhadani’s political allies have alleged that her abductors contacted them on her cell phone and made several demands. The Associated Press reports:
Kidnappers of a Sunni woman lawmaker have demanded a timetable for withdrawing coalition troops, release of all detainees and a halt to attacks on Shiite mosques, an Iraqi vice president said Wednesday…Another Sunni lawmaker, Omar Abdul-Sattar, said the kidnappers used al-Mashhadani’s personal cell phone to contact a local office of the Iraqi Islamic Party and set a three-day deadline for authorities to meet their demands.
Otherwise, “we will cut off her head,” Abdul-Sattar said, quoting the kidnappers.
Hmm. Had me right up to the “cut off her head” part. The demands–especially the one related to an end to attacks on Shiite mosques–certainly seem constructed in such a way to leave no doubt that Mashhadani is being held by Shiites, rather than al-Qaeda in Iraq, etc. But the “cut off her head” line seems contrived. We’ll see, I guess.
At least one July 7 Associated Press report suggests that the US may be trying to distinguish between Sadr and breakaway Shiite militia forces.
Iraqi forces backed by U.S. aircraft battled militants in a Shiite stronghold of eastern Baghdad early Friday, killing or wounding more than 30 fighters and capturing an extremist leader who was the target of the raid, Iraqi and U.S. officials said…
The U.S. military said the raid in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum was launched to apprehend “an insurgent leader responsible for numerous deaths of Iraqi citizens.” He was arrested after a gunbattle between Iraqi forces and insurgents, the U.S. said…
U.S. officials did not identify the insurgent leader but residents of the Shiite neighborhood said he was Abu Diraa, a commander in the Mahdi militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The U.S. statement said the militant leader was involved “in the transfer of weapons from Syria into Iraq” in an effort to break away “from his current insurgent organization.”…
An Iraqi army officer said the Americans had provided them with a list of names of people to be arrested in Sadr City.
A July 7 BBC report also provides a name for the Mahdi Army leader allegedly sought by the Americans, but that report says the US failed to arrest the man.
US officials said they had captured a senior insurgent responsible for several militant cells across Baghdad.
But a senior official in Moqtada Sadr’s office said the intended target of the operation was Abu Dera, a senior figure in the Mehdi Army, who is still at liberty.
The US claim that Abu Diraa was trying to break away from his “current insurgent organization” may prove crucial. Is this intended as a signal from the US that the raids are actually aimed at Sadrist splinter groups rather than loyal followers of Moqtada al-Sadr?
After all, hasn’t Sadr been pretty quiet recently? The Washington Post report quotes a Sadrist who acknowledges as much:
Qais Shawkat, 56, who said he is a neighborhood Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City, said… the Mahdi Army was under orders not to fight U.S. forces.
“We have orders from Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr not to fight the Americans now,” he said. “So, we didn’t. We were surprised. We did not expect the Americans to come and attack us.”
Either this will become a replay of Bremer’s infamous 2004 crackdown on Sadrists in Baghdad–a move that sparked a massive uprising by the Mahdi Army–or it signals that Sadr standing down while US and Iraqi forces crack down on Sadrists dissidents upset with his collaboration with a US-backed Iraqi government.
Will Sadrists rise up in response to the US raids?
The Associate Press reports one Sadrist response:
An al-Sadr aide, Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, denounced the Baghdad raid, saying 11 civilians were killed and dozens wounded as U.S. jets fired on the area as people were sleeping on their roofs because of the searing summer temperatures and electricity shortages.
“This is a big escalation from the American side,” he said. “I condemn all the silence toward such violations and I call for the withdrawal of the American forces.”
If the US is spoiling for a fight with Sadr–and gets it–then it will be most interesting to see how Sistani reacts. The last time the US clashed with Sadr, Sistani left for London to avoid getting his hands dirty (and meet with his cardiologist). We’ll see if a similar hush falls over Najaf this time, should the US make a serious move against Sadr.