TOPICS > Politics

Amid Iraq’s Uneasy Calm, Maliki and Sadr Vie for Influence

April 1, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Over the weekend, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his militia to stand down after days of battles with Iraqi and U.S. forces in Basra and parts of Baghdad -- a move some see as a blow to the authority of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Now, both sides are calculating what, if anything, was won or lost in the fighting.
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GWEN IFILL: From Baghdad south to the port city of Basra, a tense calm slowly returned to war-torn areas of Iraq today.

A weekend truce between the Iraqi government and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr brought an end to a week of violence in Basra. Nearly 400 people, including civilians, Shiite militia, and Iraqi troops were killed.

U.S. and British forces were drawn into the fighting, providing air and ground support in both Baghdad and Basra.

Heavy fighting erupted last Tuesday in Basra, where non-government militias have competed for power and territory. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved against al-Sadr’s powerful Mahdi Army to, he said, re-impose law in the city.

Sadr’s forces retaliated in Baghdad, launching rockets into the U.S.-controlled Green Zone. At least three Americans were killed.

Today, in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, a U.S. helicopter fired on gunmen attacking U.S. ground forces. The military said six militants were killed. Iraqi police and witnesses claimed three civilians died in the attack.

But in Basra, there were no signs of gunmen in the streets. Trash, however, was piled high along roadsides where days before street battles raged. And residents lined up for water and other supplies after curfews were lifted. Many schools and stores remained closed.

Both Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr claimed victory in the wake of the standoff.

Results of fighting unclear

Laith Kubba
Former Government Spokesman, Iraq
He (Nouri al-Maliki) had confronted a movement that is so strong and widespread in Iraq, that is so rooted amongst the poor, armed to its teeth, and impossible to dislodge by sending the army.

GWEN IFILL: For more, we turn to Laith Kubba, a former spokesman for the government of Iraq. He's now a senior program officer for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

And Yahia Said, the director for Middle East and North Africa at the Revenue Watch Institute, a New York think-tank, he is also a research fellow at the London School of Economics and has advised members of the Iraqi government. He is a Czech citizen from an Iraqi family.

Welcome to you both.

Laith Kubba, as we look at Nouri al-Maliki's role in what happened in Basra over that six-day period, was he strengthened or weakened by it?

LAITH KUBBA, Former Iraqi Government Spokesman: I think he's been weakened by it. I think he started with a noble pretext, that is, trying to enforce law and order, fight militias and gangs.

I think he did a terrible miscalculation in rushing in without working out the politics. And what does this mean? He has confronted not simply small networks. He had confronted a movement that is so strong and widespread in Iraq, that is so rooted amongst the poor, armed to its teeth, and impossible to dislodge by sending the army.

I think it was a terrible miscalculation. It has backfired. And no question it has weakened him.

One other point. Ironically, it was al-Sadr's group which brought Maliki to become a prime minister. Thirty MPs voted for him. Without that critical vote, he would have not become prime minister.

So in all sense, he has weakened his power base, and I think publicly he has suffered a setback.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Said, do you think he's weakened his power base?

YAHIA SAID, Revenue Watch Institute: I think the result of these events are a victory for Maliki. I think the government has taken a great gamble by confronting, as Dr. Kubba said, a very powerful group, a very popular group, a group that has more grassroots support than any party in the government.

But it has succeeded in, if you like, staring them down, because of the public backlash against the violence. The public backlash against another round of violence has forced Muqtada al-Sadr to back down from confrontation with the government.

And so the government, with very little forces, emerged victorious, at least tactically, from this confrontation and has shown the limits of what militias and armed groups could do.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible for the government to emerge victorious and Mr. Sadr to also be victorious?

YAHIA SAID: Well, Mr. Sadr survived another day. He's still the stronger party, in terms of weapons, in terms of public support. But he now knows the limits of confrontation with the government.

In a way, the channel remains open for him to contest power politically, but he now knows the limit of the possibility of using militias because the public is tired of that.

Sadr, Maliki may have to cooperate

Yahia Said
Revenue Watch Institute
At the end, they have a joint agenda, because they're both nationalists. They're both looking to strengthen the Iraqi state, to strengthen Iraqi institution.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kubba, what other options did the prime minister have in taking military action, in order to, as he said, to rout out these troublemakers?

LAITH KUBBA: The dilemma that faces Maliki is that there is a long list, a menu list of problems the country has. As far as armed militias, it's all over Iraq.

The number of guns that are loyal to the prime minister is just a very small percentage from the number of arms that are loyal to different political parties and tribesmen.

Up in the north, the peshmerga are totally loyal to the Kurdish Regional Government. Now there is the local councils of Sahwa, which is tribesmen armed by the American army to fight al-Qaida, which are also not loyal to Maliki. And then you've got the Badr group, which is basically backed by Iran, also not loyal to Maliki.

Maliki has the newly trained Iraqi army. But, really, if it's put to the test, their loyalty will fragment quickly. So I think, in all counts, we're not looking at a prime minister that has emerged strong out of this crisis.

GWEN IFILL: But if that's true, then why is it that Muqtada al-Sadr, as by all reports, was the one to offer the cease-fire?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, because two things. Number one, Muqtada al-Sadr did not ask for this fight. It was the prime minister who decided to move on and fight the militia. His problem is he miscalculated.

He should have weakened the -- put it that way -- the armed networks as much as possible politically before moving in. I think he rushed in.

And, number two, Muqtada al-Sadr, both of them have lost. But I think on a balance sheet, Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged as the one who stood up to the government. And after all the training the Iraqi army had, it could not really face that battle and finish him off as they wanted to.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Said, what do you think of Muqtada al-Sadr's role after this is over? And, also, what about the earlier point Mr. Kubba made about Nouri al-Maliki owing him, in part, for his own elevation?

YAHIA SAID: Yes, Muqtada al-Sadr has the strongest grassroots movement in Iraq. It's the only political movement in Iraq with grassroots. All the other political groups that are in power -- Maliki himself, the Supreme Islamic Council -- exist mostly in the Green Zone.

So Muqtada al-Sadr lives another day to fight another battle, especially on the political ground, and he remains a determining factor, a very important factor in Iraqi politics.

Maliki has chosen to antagonize al-Sadr in this particular confrontation, but that antagonism doesn't have to continue. At the end, they have a joint agenda, because they're both nationalists. They're both looking to strengthen the Iraqi state, to strengthen Iraqi institution. They're both relatively opposed to extreme forms of decentralization, so they will need to find a way to work together in the future politically.

Iran playing a risky hand

Laith Kubba
Former Government Spokesman, Iraq
Iran has built tactical alliances with al-Sadr, with other groups, but plays those tactical alliances and sacrifices them in its strategic plan to more or less empower the Supreme Islamic Council to create a Shia, a southern federal state.

GWEN IFILL: There are other countries which obviously were watching and were engaged on different levels. Let's start by talking about Iran, which is where, apparently, al-Sadr was as this whole thing was brokered and worked out. Does Iran strengthen its hand in the wake of this?

LAITH KUBBA: Definitely. Let me tell you something about Iran. It has been consistent over the last five years in its strategy in Iraq, and that is, on one hand, it has a strategic ally, which is the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, currently led by al-Hakim.

That strategic ally is the main contender that is likely to take over the elections next October in the southern provinces and push for an agenda to federalize the south and more or less bring it closer to Iran.

Now, at the same time, Iran has built tactical alliances with al-Sadr, with other groups, but plays those tactical alliances and sacrifices them in its strategic plan to more or less empower the Supreme Islamic Council to create a Shia, a southern federal state.

GWEN IFILL: If Iran is strengthened by this, with these tactical alliances, should the United States be worried?

YAHIA SAID: The United States should be worried if there is instability in Iraq. And Iran's strength is not necessarily a problem unless it leads to instability.

I'm not sure Iran comes out victorious out of the current situation. Iran has been playing a controversial game in Iraq and not a very coherent game in Iraq. Supporting the various groups is not necessarily a clear strategy.

It's trying to keep Iraq on a low boil, which is a very risky strategy, because the instability in Iraq could be contagious and could spread back into Iran.

Iran cannot bet entirely on any of the Iraqi groups, because, at the end of the day, even the Supreme Islamic Council, when it's in control of the Iraqi south, it could become a contestant against Iran.

So, if you like, everyone has a stake in Iraq's stability, at the end of the day. And the games that Iran has been playing are not necessarily in its own strategic interest.

Sadr opposed to Iranian goals

Yahia Said
Revenue Watch Institute
If it's (the current action) not used for political gain, if it's not used to subdue Sadrists politically, but only to spread law and order in Basra and allow the Sadrists to contest their interests politically, then it will strengthen Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

LAITH KUBBA: If I may comment here, the Supreme Islamic Council has one strategic goal that it shares with Iran, and that is to see the southern Iraq being a federal state, predominantly Shia. Now, this agenda is strongly opposed by Muqtada al-Sadr.

And next October, there are to be elections in the southern provinces. And the real fight is going to be whoever controls those provinces will decide on this issue, whether southern Iraq is going to be a federal state or not.

And what Iran strategically, with its ally, the Supreme Islamic Council, would like to see is that the Supreme Islamic Council wins those provinces and ultimately run a referendum, declare the south as a federal state that will be closely tied to Iran.

GWEN IFILL: You both have talked about what happens next and about the stability of Iraq. In the wake of this action, is Iraq, is the situation there more or less stable, in your opinion?

YAHIA SAID: It all depends what happens next. If the current action was, as announced and advertised, aimed at reducing lawlessness and strengthening the institutions of the states, if it's not used for political gain, if it's not used to subdue Sadrists politically, but only to spread law and order in Basra and allow the Sadrists to contest their interests politically, then it will strengthen Iraq.

LAITH KUBBA: I think we have a balance of fear that all communities now are armed and the state is not strong enough to subdue everybody, so everybody hopes that it just doesn't break out to an all-out fight.

GWEN IFILL: Laith Kubba, Yahia Said, thank you both very much.

LAITH KUBBA: Thank you.