After Muqtada, the Militias ...


By Syed Saleem Shahzad

Asia Times
September 1, 2004

With the United States preoccupied first with the Sunni resistance in Fallujah and then with the Shi'ite opposition in Najaf, led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, another, equally significant development has taken place in the Shi'ite-dominated south of Iraq. According to Asia Times Online contacts in the south, the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah has deeply infiltrated Basra and surrounding areas, so much so that it virtually runs the province, with the help of Shi'ite militias, and is committed to establishing vilayat-e-faqih (rule by the religious clergy according to the Shi'ite faith).

Most of Iraq's eligible males received military training under the Ba'ath rule of Saddam Hussein, and now the Shi'ite militias have equipped them with arms and ammunition. According to the contacts, much of this activity is being bankrolled through "welfare funds" ostensibly given to mosques and shrines by Iranian intelligence. Also, Iranian Shi'ites are said to be flooding across the porous border in their thousands, including Iranian revolutionary guards, who have already established pockets, especially in Ammarah and Basra

The former residence of the governor of Basra, situated in Mohallah (locality) Manawi Basha (popularly known as Corneesh) near the Sheraton Hotel is now being used by Iranian intelligence under the cover of the Sayyed al-Shohada political party. The party is like many Shi'ite militias and calls itself a branch of the al-Majlis al-Alla (Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq - SCIR) led by Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. However, the office bearers of the organization are not known to local Iraqis, and are generally believed to be Iranian.

However, it is often difficult to distinguish between Iranians and native Iraqis in southern Iraq as many Shi'ites, notably from the Dawa Party, the SCIRI and members of Muqtada's Mehdi Army spent many years in exile in Iran during Saddam's rule. Given the troubles of the US-led occupation forces elsewhere, militias in the south have flourished. This started immediately after the fall of Saddam's regime last year, when Hezbollah sent hundreds of volunteers to take over the control of holy shrines in southern Iraq. Later, Hezbollah leaders helped Iraqi Shi'ites establish the Iraqi Hezbollah to fight against foreign forces, with the ultimate goal of establishing vilayat-e-faqih, in line with Iran's desires.

The Iraqi Hezbollah now has its headquarters right in the middle of Basra, in the old police headquarters. The police have offices in a new building in front of the Shatul Arab waterway. The Iraqi Hezbollah has also established a powerful branch in Ammarah. This combination of Shi'ite militias (reinforced with Iranians) and Iranian intelligence in Basra and Ammarah is taking place under the watchful eyes of the British, who are responsible for security in the south, but they are reluctant to precipitate a major clash, so have kept their distance.

These Iranian supported-militias are one part of the Shi'ite political puzzle. There are, of course, other key pieces, notably Muqtada, who if nothing else has earned himself a reputation for opportunism and unpredictability. After vowing to fight to the "last drop of my blood" in Najaf, Muqtada has called on his militia to put down their arms and leave the Imam Ali Shine in Najaf, where their resistance was centered. This at the behest of the powerful Shi'ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who favors a more moderate secular-leaning Iraq to Muqtada's vision of a country more in line with vilayat-i-faqih.

The American-backed Iraqi government and Muqtada's representatives continued talks on the future of his militia late into Monday night. The focus was a peace plan for the volatile Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, which has a majority Shi'ite population. At the same time, a spokesman for Muqtada said that the cleric was developing a "political program". Getting Muqtada off the battlefield and into the political process is only a part of the problem in Iraq. Still sidelined are many Arab nationalists (former Ba'ath Party members), tribal chiefs, former Iraqi army top brass, and last but not least many of the clergy and prayer leaders at mosques, whether Shi'ite or Sunni. These people formed the pillars of power under Saddam, now they have been excluded - the Ba'ath Party was banned, the army disbanded, etc.

Inevitably a power vacuum formed, into which stepped people like Muqtada and Sunni leaders in Fallujah. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who was himself a former Ba'athist and once a jail mate of Saddam in the 1960s, is acutely aware of this, and he is known to oppose the ban on the Ba'ath Party, which has been partly relaxed. But whether he will have a free hand over his US backers in "rehabilitating" the former pillars of power is another matter. The alternative is anarchy in the form of militias. This is the dilemma the US now faces.

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