Remember the abduction of Sunni MP Tayseer al-Mashhadani that provided the immediate rationale for US-backed raids in Sadr City and arguably sparked the latest convulsion of sectarian violence in Iraq? (For a refresher, see this previous post).
Remember how Sunni political leaders reported that the allegedly Shiite kidnappers had threatened to “cut off her head” unless there was a halt to attacks on Shiite mosques, etc.?
Remember how the Sunni-led “Iraqi Accordance Front” boycotted parliament and threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Maliki government?
Remember when Omar al-Jubouri, a member of Mashhadani’s Iraqi Islamic Party, demanded US intervention in an interview with the New York Times:
“The Iraqi people ask the Americans for an iron fist to crush the Sadr militia in Baghdad,” Mr. Jubouri said in an interview, referring to the volatile militia commanded by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
The Associated Press is reporting an abrupt reversal.
The largest Sunni bloc in parliament said Tuesday it will end its legislative boycott following a call for calm and unity by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a promise that a kidnapped Sunni legislator will be released…
Noureddine al-Hyali, a member of the bloc that holds 44 seats in the 275-member parliament, said that contacts had been made with the kidnappers and “we have received promises . . . that Tayseer al-Mashhadani will be released within days.” He quoted the kidnappers as saying “she is our guest,” indicating that she was being well treated.
Two of al-Mashhadani’s guards were released last week…
Al-Sadr has called for unity amid rising sectarian tension here and another Sunni politician said the bloc was responding.
“We have decided to attend the meetings as of tomorrow in response to the call by Muqtada al-Sadr,” Adnan al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press.
An impressive turn of events. How fortuitous that Mashhadani’s abductors–last week, allegedly on the verge of chopping off her head–now welcomed her as a guest!
Perhaps it was Omar al-Jubouri who lost his head when he demanded that US forces use an “iron fist” to crush Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Cooler heads now seem to prevail, at least among the Sunni political elite closest to the US administration.
Somebody has blinked.
Perhaps it was the US, sensing that a sectarian civil war might actually help Sadr more than hurt him. As I suggested in a previous post, full-blown sectarian civil war acturally has the potential to reunite Sadr with the rest of the Shiite political establishment, thwarting US attempts to isolate Sadr with the help of the Shiite-led Maliki government.
Although Right Zionists like Charles Krauthammer once welcomed sectarian civil war (see previous post), Bush administration Right Zionists are not necessarily running the show in Iraq these days.
It is also possible that the real issue in all this involves tension and factionalism within the Sadrist camp. According to this scenario, there are some Sadrist elements that reject cooperation with the US-backed government and favor a more militant response to US and Sunni forces.
After the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite Askariya Shrine on the outskirts of Samarra, Sadr had his hands full trying to keep his own base from sectarian vengeance.
At that time, the New York Times reported that armed Shiite militiamen pulled 47 Iraqis off buses at a “fake checkpoint” and executed them.
According to that same report, Sadr moved quickly to shift the axis from sectarianism to anti-occupation nationalism:
Though Shiite leaders, including Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, condemned the anti-Sunni violence on Thursday, there were no open condemnations of the Mahdi Army, Sadr’s militia that is thought to have led many of the violent protests.
Sadr’s office issued a statement calling on the Mahdi Army to protect holy sites in Samarra and elsewhere, and demanding that the new Iraqi Parliament issue a schedule for the withdrawal of U.S. troops so that Iraq could operate as a sovereign country, responsible for its own security.
“This situation is mostly because of the existence of the occupation,” Sadr said in the statement. “We charge the occupation forces with all the responsibility.”
A new International Crisis Group report on Sadr gets to the heart of this issue:
Seen by many as a spoiler, his political positioning and legitimacy in the eyes of a restless, disenfranchised population have made Muqtada a key to Iraqâ€™s stability, and he must be treated as such. But Muqtada must do more to exercise responsible leadership himself. As sectarian tensions have grown, so too has his movementâ€™s involvement in the dirty war that pits Sunnis against Shiites. Muqtada has maintained his calls for national unity, even in the wake of particularly vicious attacks against Shiite civilians, yet the February 2006 attack against a Shiite shrine in Samarra appears to have been a turning point. Since then, the violence has reached alarming proportions as Sadrists have indiscriminately attacked presumed Baathists and Wahhabis. Controlling his forces and putting an end to their killings is Muqtadaâ€™s principal challenge. Should he fail to meet it, he will be partly responsible for two things he ardently claims he wishes to avoid: the countryâ€™s fragmentation and an Islamic civil war.
The report also specifically recommends “initiatives… aimed at increasing discipline among Sadrist militants.”
It is possible that the US and Sunni politicians like Adnan al-Dulaimi now see the advantages of helping Sadr control his own forces.
Throughout the recent crackdown in Sadr City and the wave of sectarian violence, the US has refused to point a finger directly at Sadr.
According the Associated Press, US officials declared that the largest US raid last week was undertaken to capture a Shiite militia leader–identified in the press as Abu Diraa–accused of trying to break away “from his current insurgent organization.”
Similarly, today’s Washington Post article, “Violence Flares in Divided Baghdad,” quotes the same US military official, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, playing down the number of Sunni killed in the recent ambush and avoiding direct attacks on Sadr:
U.S. troops found 14 dead Iraqis in the neighborhood but not the “30 or 40 or more that was in the reporting that we heard going on,” Caldwell said. An Iraqi police officer said that 57 corpses, plus those of three policemen, were taken to Yarmouk Hospital after the violence. Caldwell did not place blame for the killings on the Mahdi Army, but he acknowledged the problem of what he called “illegal armed groups.“
Back in 2004, it appeared that the US was leading a crackdown on Sadr in order to insulate Sistani from Shiite radicalism. Is the US now leading a crackdown on breakaway Sadrists in order to insulate Sadr from his own militant base?
Or does Sadr himself remain public enemy number one?
The end of the Sunni parliamentary boycott certainly suggests that at least some political elites within the Green Zone want to give Sadr a chance to help restore order.