July 2nd, 2014
08:39 AM ET

The return of Muqtada al-Sadr?

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By Global Public Square staff

It seems that everyone – President Obama, John Kerry, NATO, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, even the Iranian government – has the same advice for the prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki: Form a broad-based, inclusive government that reaches out to the Sunnis. That would take away some of the sense of grievance that fuels their support for radical Sunni groups like ISIS that are threatening Iraq's existence as a nation.

So why in the world is al-Maliki flatly refusing to do this?

Partly it's because he’s a hard line Shiite politician himself whose party draws its support from the Shiites, who are not particularly well disposed to the notion of being nice to the Sunnis, their former overlords.

But it's probably at least as much because al-Maliki needs to worry about radical Shiites as much as radical Sunnis. You see, he has his own Tea Party. And this one has an army of its own.

Last month, members of the group (formerly called the "Mahdi Army," now called the "Peace Brigades") paraded through the streets of Baghdad by the tens of thousands, displaying their readiness to supposedly protect holy sites and shrines. The group's name might be new, but its leader is a well-known figure in Iraq and dominated the U.S. media during the American occupation.

Remember the name Muqtada al-Sadr? He’s the radical Shiite cleric who fiercely opposed the U.S. occupation of Iraq.Back then the Mahdi Army was responsible for some of the deadliest days of the war.

Then he overplayed his hand.

The U.S. got other Shiite leaders to turn on him, issue an arrest warrant, and in 2007 he fled to Iran, where he sought exile and supposedly studied theology. But when he returned in 2011, his followers remained loyal to him, and he wields real political power in Iraq.

Al-Maliki got to keep his job as prime minister after an inconclusive election in 2010 largely because Muqtada al-Sadr helped him to build a coalition, thereby ending months of political deadlock.Since then, al-Sadr has called al-Maliki a "dictator" and – in a very surprising twist – recently added pressure on him to step down by calling for the creation of a new emergency government, right after Maliki rejected the idea.

Al-Sadr urged the Iraqi government to incorporate "moderate Sunnis, who have been marginalized" in order to quell the bloodshed.Now, al-Sadr appears to be trying to become the new power broker of Iraq, condemning ISIS and the Sunni terrorist groups, but also appealing to moderate Sunnis. Whether or not he succeeds, we are probably witnessing splits in the Shiite coalition, and that can only mean more chaos in an already chaotic situation.

A piece in Foreign Affairs points out that recent events are the re-ignition of the 2006-2007 Iraqi Civil War and that they fit a pattern. Over a third of all ethnic civil wars, the authors say, flair up again within five years. What's more, approximately one third of all power sharing arrangements born out of those conflicts also fail within that time period.  It's true of Angola, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka in history.

And, now it's true of Iraq.

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Topics: Iraq • What in the World?

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