Saturday, October 21, 2006

Sadr's Mahdi Army takes control of Amara

By Michael J.W. Stickings

As if we needed yet more evidence that Iraq is falling apart — or, rather, that it is descending ever further into chaos with an impotent central government and rampant sectarianism — the city of Amara, located in the southeastern part of the country, fell yesterday, temporarily, to Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. The New York Times reports:

Hundreds of militiamen linked to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr battled local police and members of a rival Shiite militia in the southeastern city of Amara [yesterday], destroying police stations and seizing control of entire neighborhoods, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of one of their fighters…

The gunmen from Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, eventually withdrew from their positions and ceded control of the city to an Iraqi Army batallion sent from Basra. The negotiations continued late into the evening.

Yes, the Iraqi Army retook control, but the incident reveals much about the state of Iraq today:

1) "British forces, who occupied the city for two years before turning it over to Iraqi control in August, did not intervene to stop the bloodshed in Amara, apparently wanting to give Iraqi officials time to resolve the dispute on their own. British military officials said that a quick-reaction force was standing by outside Amara in case the Iraqis’ efforts failed."

2) "The stunning and defiant display of militia strength underscored the weaknesses of the Iraqi security forces and the potency of the Mahdi Army, which has been able to operate virtually unchecked in Iraq. The Mahdi Army is widely accused of propelling the cycle of sectarian violence that threatens to plunge the country into all-out civil war."

3) "Today’s clashes, which pitted Mr. Sadr’s fighters against members of a rival Shiite faction, the Badr Organization, also showed the deep fissures in the country’s Shiite leadership, and cast doubt on the ability of the ruling Shiite coalition to hold itself together."

In other words:

Coalition forces are ceding responsibility for security to the Iraqis in anticipation of a likely withdrawal. Perhaps not a complete withdrawal, but certainly a partial one, particularly a British one. The Iraqis succeeded today, sort of, but questions remain as to whether they will be able to secure the country, insofar as that is even possible, once coalition forces pull back or out.

The Mahdi Army is strong, but there is evident disunity among Shiites. As
Kevin Drum puts it: "Sadr may be playing a double game, encouraging attacks privately while denouncing them publicly, but it's more likely that he's genuinely lost control of at least parts of his militia. In other words, not only don't we control Amara, and not only does the central government in Baghdad not control Amara, but apparently even Sadr doesn't control Amara."

It may be next to impossible to control these militias, but apparently they can't even control themselves. Even Sadr seems to be losing control.

And things will only get worse.

(For more, see
Abu Aardvark, Kiko's House, and The Moderate Voice.)

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