Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose feared militia was crushed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki two years ago, has leveraged support for his former enemy’s government into renewed influence over the country’s security forces, governors’ offices and even its prisons.
In recent months, Maliki’s government has freed hundreds of controversial members of the Shiite Muslim cleric’s Mahdi Army and handed security positions to veteran commanders of the militia, which was blamed for some of the most disturbing violence in the country’s civil war and insurgency against U.S. forces.
The Mahdi Army has also in effect seized control of cellblocks at one of Iraq’s largest detention facilities, Taji prison. Within months of the U.S. hand-over of the prison in March, Mahdi Army detainees were giving orders to guards who were either loyal to or intimidated by them, Iraqi and U.S. officials say.
It marks a remarkable return to prominence for Sadr, an Iranian-backed Shiite cleric who stunned his followers in September when he delivered pivotal parliamentary votes to Maliki that helped him stay in power.
Senior Sadr supporters are being brought into the Interior Ministry at high-level positions, according to Mahdi Army members and Iraqi officers. One Sadr commander who is being given the rank of brigadier general said he knew of 50 others who were being recruited for officers’ positions.
The group has secured political gains also. Last week, the Sadr camp won the deputy speaker position in parliament, defeating Maliki’s candidate, and is said to be vying for the post of deputy prime minister too.
The Sadr movement’s prominence may make it harder for the United States to wield its waning influence in Iraq, including securing an agreement allowing it to keep forces in Iraq after the end of 2001, when the last U.S. troops are scheduled to leave.
FOR THE RECORD:
Iraqi cleric: An article in the Nov. 26 Section A about the rising influence of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr said the last U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Iraq at the end of 2001. It should have said 2011. —
Through the deputy speaker’s post, the Sadr camp could shape, if not derail, any parliamentary debate on keeping the U.S. troops in Iraq after next year.
Maliki’s alliance has also agreed to hand over the governorship of a province on the Iranian border, Sadr officials said. An Iraqi official says a similar agreement is close for neighboring Wasit province. Both regions are considered hubs for weapons smuggling from Iran.
Some outside analysts say the ascendency of the Sadr movement, whose militia members killed, kidnapped and displaced civilians in Baghdad as they battled Sunni Arab extremists, is a cause for concern, but they still believe that the movement should be given a chance to show that it has changed.
“The Sadrists’ control over prisons and assumption of senior positions in the security apparatus could spell trouble, as they have not shown adherence to the rule of law in the past and in fact have committed horrendous abuses,” said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert. “But they, like some others in the government with a dark past, should have the chance to rehabilitate themselves.”
The prime minister’s alliance denies that it cut any special deals in return for Sadr’s support in forming the next government. They called all such allegations baseless.
The Sadr bloc “will participate in the government according to the electoral merits. They will present the qualified persons to participate in the government. There was no talk about a security deal or [prisoner] releases at all,” said Hassan Suneid, a member of parliament and negotiator for Maliki.
Some Iraqi officials say they fear the Sadr movement is now close to duplicating the success of Hezbollah, a Shiite movement tied to Iran with disciplined political and armed wings as well as strong social programs that give it major influence in Lebanon.
But, one Iraqi official warned, “There cannot be a state within a state.”
Sadr’s influence had begun to wane after he declared a cease-fire in 2007 amid continued fighting with U.S. and Iraqi troops at the height of Iraq’s civil war. The Americans and the Iraqi military jailed hundreds of Sadr’s commanders, who ruled through fear and violence.
The next year, Maliki cemented his reputation as a strong leader by cracking down on Sadr’s militia in the southern port of Basra, where several rival militias had been battling for control of the city.
But Sadr, who retreated to Iran during the U.S. troop buildup, gradually reshaped his movement and plotted a new political strategy as he watched his clout ebb.
His followers competed in elections in March, winning 39 seats in the new parliament. That small bloc of votes became pivotal when Maliki found himself unable to form a government outright, a hand that became stronger as months of tortuous negotiations failed to break the stalemate.
Sadr’s decision to deliver his votes to Maliki — the man most assumed to be an implacable enemy — shocked some of his supporters at the time. But it is increasingly seen as a master stroke that allowed Sadr and his followers to engineer a return to prominence.
Since spring, Sadr has managed to extract concessions from Maliki as he battled to stay in office. Five months ago, the Justice Ministry set up a special committee to screen prisoners’ cases after the Sadr camp exerted political pressure; soon, the government was releasing Mahdi Army detainees. Amir Kinani, a leader in Sadr’s parliament bloc, insists the men were innocent or had been detained without warrants.
Those released included the three brothers of Sadr militia leader Abu Derra, one of the most feared and brutal commanders in Baghdad during the sectarian war.
One Iraqi commander said 60 to 70 people, mostly former Mahdi Army members from his area, had been let out of jails without any formal judicial process. A senior U.S. officer said he had received a list of 15 former senior Mahdi Army commanders who had suddenly been freed. They had been serving time — some of them on death row — for killing Iraqis or harming U.S. forces. According to the officer, at least two of them have been given jobs in the police or Justice Ministry.
In one of the most graphic demonstrations of their newfound might, Mahdi Army prisoners have now taken control of their prison blocks at Taji, which holds more than 2,700 inmates.
As recently as a year ago, when Americans still controlled the prison, Sadr loyalists feared being held by Iraqi forces. Now, according to an Iraqi official and a U.S. military officer, there is no doubt that the Sadr supporters, rather than the guards, are in command of their cellblocks.
Prisoners roam about and use their phones freely. The institution is going to start implementing a photo headcount of detainees because of concern that some of the Mahdi Army members could escape — or may have already done so, the U.S. officer said.
“The Mahdi Army controls the Taji correctional facility,” the Iraqi official added. He said he believed personnel sympathetic to the Mahdi Army were chosen to supervise Taji in order to curry favor with the Sadr movement as part of the political negotiations.
The Sadr supporter who recently was given the position of brigadier general in the security services said Mahdi Army veterans were now getting their spoils of power just like rival parties. But he predicted they would all keep each other in check.
“All of the parties are afraid of dictatorship,” he said. “Democracy will continue because our people are aware.... They will not repeat the same mistakes.”