An outbreak of violence at a Shi’a pilgrimage has forced radical Shi’ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to issue a call to his Mahdi Army to back off attacks against US and Iraqi troops.
The violence in the sacred Shi’ite city of Karbala exposes the reality that Iraqi Shi’a are not one monolithic bloc as is commonly thought in the West. The various Shi’a factions are in fact quite divergent on key issues, and the idea that a single bloc of theocratic Shi’ites control the Iraqi government is not the case.
These clashes also indicate that al-Sadr has once again overplayed his hand. In 2004 when his Mahdi Army overtook the city of Najaf, the locals ended up attacking and killing many Mahdi Army members because they had grown sick of them acting like two-bit thugs. It now appears that this violence, which is almost certainly due to Mahdi Army members, has once again had the same effect. The average Iraqi Shi’a is starting to see that al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army are acting as Iranian proxy agents, trying to disturb the democratic process in Iraq while at the same time making al-Sadr richer and more powerful. It appears that even al-Sadr is becoming aware of this, which is why he’s once again trying to back down long enough to keep himself from the hangman’s noose.
Fortunately, it looks like the al-Maliki government has also had quite enough of al-Sadr. They’ve been politically isolating the Sadrists and have started to move forward with an agenda for national reconciliation largely without the help of the Sadrist bloc. It could be possible that a new coalition can be formed between moderate Shi’a, Sunnis, and Kurds that excludes the Sadrists and other Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups. That sort of coalition would be greatly beneficial to the future security of Iraq.
Al-Sadr has a tendency to overextend himself, and hopefully this time, he won’t be able to escape the consequences. Iraqi Shi’ites have died because his Mahdi Army wanted to act like the Iranian-backed thugs that they are, and now the rest of Iraq’s Shi’ite population is turning against him. Al-Sadr has thus far managed to luck out and keep his power and his head — with luck, this time he won’t be so lucky. Iraq is far better off without Moqtada al-Sadr than it is with him and his band of brigands constantly causing trouble. Hopefully the attacks at Karbala will be sufficient for the Iraqi government to arrest him and take him out of the public eye. Once that happens, his organization is likely to fracture into groups that can be peaceably disarmed and brought back into the political fold or groups that can be forcibly disarmed and brought to justice before the Iraqi authorities.