Friday, August 31, 2007

Analysis: The danger of a Shia civil war

Above: The most important day in the Shia calendar is Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. On this day observant Shia men draw blood in remembrance.

Left: Iraq's major Shia figures.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is head of the Shi'ite coalition in parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which put Maliki in power. Before the fall of Saddam, Hakim spent years in exile in Iran, where, as leader of the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) he headed the anti-Saddam Badr Brigade militia. After Saddam's fall, the Badr Brigade merged into Iraq's official security forces, and Hakim became a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. In December, Hakim met with Bush in Washington, shortly before the administration attempted to coordinate Prime Minister Maliki's ouster with Hakim chosen by Washington to be the power-broker behind the scenes. But that plan was stopped dead in its tracks by Sistani. By February, Hakim was no longer Washington's favorite, and the U.S. raided the Baratha mosque in Baghdad, which is associated with the elder Hakim. The U.S. military says it was targeted for 'illegally armed militia kidnapping, torture and murder activities'. SCIRI (now Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq -- SICI) is the largest member of U.I.A.

Moqtada al-Sadr stayed in Iraq but in hiding during Saddam's time. He organized and headed the Mahdi Army militia, and was standard bearer for millions of Iraq's poorest citizens. While Hakim proved accommodating to the U.S., Sadr was the chief proponent for Shi'ite resistance to the occupation. The Sadrists are also members of the UIA coalition, though their members have resigned from Maliki's cabinet.

Both Hakim and Sadr have distinguished lineage in the shi'ite clergy, and both families have vied for generations for influence amongst the in shi'ites in Iraq. Both Hakim's and Sadr's parties want power in Baghdad, as well as the provinces containing the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and especially the southern province of Basra where the vast majority of Iraq's proven oil reserves lie, and Iraq's only outlet to the sea. Vying with them both is the much smaller Fadhila Islamic party, which recently withdrew its support of the UIA.

Both the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade are heavily represented in various Iraqi security forces, including the army and the national police.

Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is Iraq's most important shi'ite religious figure, who maintains close ties to both Hakim and Sadr, and who has several times brought them together to negotiate their differences. Sistani's main concerns are to protect shi'ites from sectarian violence and to promote a strong central government, separate from but still linked in important ways to Iran (he is of Iranian descent and there are tense but complex ties between Sistani's Najaf Hawza and the Qom Hawza in Iran).

Rivalries and violence between Shiite factions are threatening to overshadow progress U.S. forces have made against al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremists just weeks before the top American commander and diplomat in Iraq report to Congress.

An all-out, Shiite-on-Shiite conflict could plunge the oil-rich and mainly Shiite south of Iraq into chaos that could rival -- or even surpass -- the bloodshed across Baghdad and the center of the country for more than four years.

That, in turn, could shatter the relative unity in the Shiite mainstream, which has given crucial support to the U.S.-led mission in Iraq, and deepen the predicament of embattled Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Clashes between rival Shiite factions have not been uncommon since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, but the most recent ones are by far the most ominous given their deadliness, scope and timing.

For Washington, the danger of a full fledged armed conflict in southern Iraq could not have come at a worse time.

Read the rest at the LA Times