The power struggle among Shiite groups in Iraq -- which has periodically
erupted in bloody conflict over the past few years -- is marred
by varying degrees of Iranian influence, acceptance of the elected
government and cooperation with U.S. forces.
between two of the main Shiite power-brokers in Iraq, the nationalist
Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council,
has led to skirmishes in Diwaynia, Karbala and Najaf. The Fadila
Party and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party are also
components of the Shiite political calculus.
In August, al-Sadr condemned the killings of two Supreme Council
provincial governors in Muthanna and Qadisiya. While he denied
that his Mahdi militia was responsible, the deaths were depicted
as a consequence of the rivalry among Shiites.
Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian
history at the University of Michigan who specializes in Shiite
politics, said divisions existed among Shiites while Saddam Hussein
was in power, and U.S. policy-makers should not have been surprised
at the intra-sectarian conflict that erupted after the U.S.-led
invasion that ousted him. Literature coming out of the groups
in the late-1990s described assassination plots on rival groups
while they were still in Iran.
"That they would come into Iraq and not fight each other
would be surprising," Cole said.
A major point of contention among Shiite powers is the degree
of support for the U.S. presence in Iraq. Al-Sadr has built a
populist movement out of his anti-U.S. rhetoric, while Dawa and
Supreme Council leaders maintain working relationships with the
Al-Sadr has been able to capitalize on widespread public discontent
that troops are still in Iraq. The U.S. military surge that began
earlier this year may have even helped al-Sadr purge his Mahdi
militia of rogue members who would not stand down and abide by
his commands, said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow in defense
policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Opposition to the Americans is a tactical position he takes
to further his position in Iraq," Biddle said.
A major source of division in the late Saddam era was that while
the Supreme Council -- founded by Ayatollah Baqr al-Hakim and
his younger brother, Abd al-Aziz -- sought refuge in Iran, the
Sadrists -- led by al-Sadr's late father, Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr,
remained in Iraq and suffered. This history of Shiite oppression
has become a talking point for al-Sadr and a source of empathy
for his constituents.
If provincial elections were to bring a shift in power from the
Supreme Council to the Sadrists, some foreign policy analysts
say it would weaken Iran. While al-Sadr has cooperated with Iran
periodically, his ties are no where near as close to Iran as those
of the Supreme Council, whose followers have received training
and support from their wealthy neighbor.
"The Supreme Council has pulled off the tightrope of being
U.S.'s best ally in Iraq and Iran's best ally in Iraq. Both allies
would suffer from the installment of a nationalist movement,"
Recently, the Supreme Council tried to distance itself from Iran
-- the group changed its named from the Supreme Council for Islamic
Revolution in Iraq to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. In response
to shrinking popularity in Sadrist strongholds, the Supreme Council
has tried to identify more with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and less
with Iran. Support for the Supreme Council is still strong in
Najaf and Karbala, but if conditions stay the same, al-Sadr could
sweep the majority of provincial elections within the next two
The southern city of Basra has been host to fighting between
the Supreme Council's Badr Brigades and Fadila supporters. After
Fadila pulled out of the United Iraqi Alliance -- a Shiite political
coalition -- the provincial council passed a vote of no-confidence
against Basra's governor, a member of Fadila. Al-Maliki declined
to reverse the decision and Basra was left with essentially no
Some foreign policy and military analysts have speculated that
the al-Maliki government itself is at its breaking point. A bloc
of Sunni leaders walked out on the government in early August,
a few months after the April departure of six cabinet ministers
loyal to al-Sadr. If the al-Maliki government were to collapse,
it would create a power vacuum that al-Sadr could exploit, but
it is less clear whether Sadrists would retain the current government
"I don't think Muqtada and his lieutenants are philosophically
committed to parliamentary governance. They've decided they'll
participate in it, but I think it's a pragmatic decision and not
philosophical one," Cole said.
The prevailing cynicism over the Maliki government's ability
the provide services for the Iraqi people has also presented an
opportunity for al-Sadr to distance himself from the establishment.
Electric services continue to fail, leaving millions of Iraqis
without a regular source of power for the fifth summer in a row.
Sadrists have avoided involvement, but if they were to assume
real power in Iraq, they may not fare any better against a political
structure that Biddle described as "fragmented and fear-ridden."
"I don't think there's any prospect of anybody in Iraq being
able to effectively administer services," Biddle said.
For his part, al-Sadr said in an interview with the Independent
that al-Maliki is "a tool for the Americans, and people see
that clearly." He also said that fighting among Shiite groups
-- namely in Basra -- will subside once foreign troops leave.
The concerns surrounding the Sunnis may calm eruptions among
Shiites, Biddle said. But at the same time, the British troop
withdrawal from Basra, which was expected to be completed by the
end of August, or an even more widespread U.S. troop withdrawal
throughout Iraq, would remove the main force limiting militia
"The different Shiite groups in the south have tried to
develop rules of the road with each other that try to minimize
bloodshed, but it's hard to know how that would hold up,"