New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 27 Jul 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Iraq’s Shiite militia sees its power waning

New York Times

Posted online: Monday, July 28, 2008


BAGHDAD, JULY 27: The militia that was once the biggest defender of poor Shiites in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, has been profoundly weakened in a number of neighbourhoods across Baghdad, in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq.


It is a remarkable change from past years, when the militia, led by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, controlled a broad swath of Baghdad, including local governments and police forces. But its use of extortion and violence began alienating much of the Shiite population to the point that many quietly supported American military sweeps against the group.


Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki struck another blow this spring, when he led a military operation against it in Baghdad and in several southern cities.


The shift, if it holds, would solidify a transfer of power from al-Sadr, who had lorded his once broad political support over the Government, to al-Maliki, who is increasingly seen as a true national leader.


It is part of a general decline in violence that is resonating in American as well as Iraqi politics — John McCain argues that the advances in Iraq would have been impossible without the increase in American troops known as the surge.


The Mahdi Army’s decline also means that the Iraqi state, all but impotent in the early years of the war, has begun to act the part, taking over delivery of some services and control of some neighbourhoods.


“The Iraqi Government broke their branches and took down their tree,” said Abu Amjad, a civil servant who lives in Sadr City, once seen as an unbreachable stronghold of the group.


The change is showing up in the lives of ordinary people. The price of cooking gas is less than a fifth of what it was when the militia controlled local gas stations, and kerosene for heating has also become much less expensive.


In a sign of weakness, Shiite tribes in several neighbourhoods are asking for compensation from militia members’ families for past wrongs.


The security gains are in the hands of unseasoned Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints spread throughout Baghdad’s neighbourhoods. And local Government officials have barely begun to take hold of service distribution networks, potentially leaving a window for the militia to reassert itself.


The Mahdi Army might be weak, but it is not gone. Iraqis will vote in provincial elections in December. The weakening of the Sadrists in national politics clears the stage for the group’s most bitter rival — a Shiite party led by another cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.


The militia is painting its response on Sadr City walls: “We will be back, after this break.” The Iraqi army is painting over it.