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US Move On Militias Angers Shi'tes In Govt.

PM Maliki on Aug. 8 sharply criticised a pre-dawn US-Iraqi raid on Sadr's Shi'ite militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi, in Baghdad's Sadr City which took place on Aug. 7. Maliki was angered by the operation, warning that it could undermine his efforts towards national reconciliation.

In a statement on state TV, Maliki said: "Reconciliation cannot go hand-in-hand with operations that violate the rights of citizens this way. This operation used weapons that are unreasonable to detain someone - like using planes". He apologised to the Iraqi people for the operation and said "this won't happen again".

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, on Aug. 7 met with the top US commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, on the security situation in Baghdad. He told Gen. Casey it was not in anyone's interest to have a confrontation with Jaysh al-Mahdi.

The public position taken by Maliki and Talibani signal serious differences between Iraqi politicians and both US and Iraqi military officials on how to restore order and deal with armed groups, many of which have links to political parties. Speaking to reporters after meeting with Talabani, Casey made no mention of Sadr but said he had discussed plans with Talabani to bring "fundamental change to the security situation in Baghdad".

Sadr has risen as a major figure in the Shi'ite community and a pillar of support for Maliki. The prime minister's apology and criticism of the US forces may have helped placate Sadr, who on Aug. 7 urged his followers to show restraint. Sadr holds the key to end the sectarian violence which has rocked the country. Backed by Tehran, Sadr has modelled his movement on the Iran-sponsored Shi'ite group Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Sadr, shut out of the previous two US-appointed governments in Iraq, won 29 seats in the House of Representatives (parliament) in the Dec. 15 elections and joined the governing Shi'ite coalition. And in the model of Hizbullah, Sadr then sought to control social services which affect the daily lives of Iraqis.

While other political parties fought to control the ministries of oil or defence, Sadr successfully campaigned for the ministries of transportation, health, and electricity. The Christian Science Monitor on Aug. 8 quoted a Kurdish politician as saying: "It does not bode well for the Iraqi people that Sadr is the most powerful Shi'ite leader in the country, apart from Sistani. What people thought Iraq was - this predominantly secular-leaning country - is now developing into a very Islamic country. It is becoming now fashionable to be part of the [Jaysh-al] Mahdi army".

Although recently US Gen. John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, told a US Senate committee that Jaysh al-Mahdi's numbers were in the low thousands, the Boston Globe has quoted a US official in Baghdad as saying Sadr now had between 10,000 and 30,000 men in his militia, far more than fought the US in the streets of Najaf in 2004.

Despite the sectarian violence, however, President Talabani denies that Iraq is having a civil war, saying: "When a car bomb explodes in a Hussainiyat [Shi'ite mosque], markets and [Shi'ite] regions, it is natural that there would be a reaction among enthusiastic Shi'ite youngsters who find the government unable to maintain security...This is a reckless reaction".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Date:Aug 14, 2006
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