Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Perspective: Rally masks divisions in Mahdi Army

A protester waves an Iraqi flag at yesterday's anti-occupation rally in Najaf.

Tens of thousands of Shia demonstrators rallied to a call by Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric, to protest against coalition forces in Iraq yesterday, the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.

The vast gathering of men burning US flags, carrying giant Iraqi ones and waving banners denouncing President Bush was a huge show of strength for the firebrand cleric. Policemen stayed in their bases and armed militiamen from Hojetoleslam al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army enforced security.

But behind such displays of unity, many point to fault lines developing in the militia, estimated to number 20,000 gun-men. With its leaders in exile — Hojatoleslam al-Sadr is believed to be in Iran — hiding or in US custody, many militiamen are increasingly frustrated. Iran is thought to be fishing for rogue elements to bring under its influence.

“Iran is afraid of the Americans now and wants to make sure the Mahdi Army can control Iraq and beat the Americans,” said Abu Bakr, an al-Mahdi commander in Baghdad. A Western diplomat in Iraq said that there were splits within the militia and the political movement allied to it. “Every week that goes by, and we’ve been seeing this since November, there’s another example of how fractured it is,” he said.

Read the rest at the Times of London