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“Meanwhile, in the South?”: Growing Insecurity in Iraq’s South

As sectarian violence continues to rage in the face of the much-heralded security clampdown and counter-militia operations in Baghdad, the once relatively peaceful south of Iraq has shown signs of a deteriorating security environment and growing instability, as political, religious, and criminal militant actors jostle for power. As noted recently in these pages, amid an environment of quasi-anarchy due largely to a weak central government and a vacuum of government-imposed security, a kaleidoscopic landscape of sub-state political, religious, and criminal sectarian power groupings have burst onto the scene to wrangle for power and fiefdoms. This jockeying has galvanized a growing polarization and rending of Iraq’s wider society into these sectarian groupings and catalyzed a spiral of sectarian conflict. Amid this landscape, the rebel cleric and national leader Moqtada al Sadr (see photo on following page), his Mahdi Army militia , and his popular constituency among Shia have ascended to become the pivotal sub-state power groupings in Iraq (for further discussion of Sadr’s ascendancy, see the August 16, 2006 WAR Report). The Sadr movement is oriented in defense and pursuit of Shia communal interests and against “occupying” US forces and Sunni insurgents. The Mahdi Army has battled Coalition forces in two major uprisings since the official end of the US-led invasion, and US and Iraqi forces have delicately stepped up counter-militia operations against peripheral Mahdi Army elements in Baghdad and the south. As of late, these elements have begun flexing back, portending a violent reckoning with US and Iraqi forces. In particular, these elements seem poised to serve as destabilizing actors in Iraq’s south. Observers suggest that the Sadr movement and the Mahdi Army are splintering into more radicalized and militant militias thought to be at the forefront of sectarian, anti-Coalition, and anti-government violence, who are not necessarily under the control of Sadr and with some possibly receiving militant support and instigation from Iranian actors. Mahdi Army elements bested Iraqi troops in a brazen confrontation in the southern city of Diwaniyah, leaving at least 23 soldiers and 13 civilians dead (Terrorist Incident forthcoming). After the battle, Mahdi militiamen controlled large sections of the city. The confrontation reportedly occurred following an attempted raid by Iraqi forces of Mahdi stronghold neighborhoods and was drawn to a ceasefire status?the Mahdi Army will stay off the streets and the Iraqi Army will withdraw from the city?after negotiations with Sadr himself in Najaf. The episode underscores the continued martial and political power and recalcitrance of Sadr and the Mahdi Army and the relative continued weakness of Iraqi security forces. This martial weakness, coupled with a central government politically hesitant to confront many militias tied to Iraqi political parties and officials, represents a primary source of the central government’s inability to assume control of the country. Inter-Shia power wrangling in the south between Sadrists/Mahdi Army elements and the governing Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq have increased tensions. Add to this situation a roiling cocktail of political, religious, and criminal militant elements also vying for political and economic power and turf in the south and a deteriorating security and economic environment, and the region seems poised to explode into sectarian conflict. Without a resolute and robust political, military, and development intervention by the government and Coalition forces to pacify, arbitrate between, and demobilize the militant groupings in the south and improve the local economic situation, the province will likely slide into sectarian conflict. Such conflict would not only degrade the near and long-term security of the province, but also the viability and stability of oil production resources there. Unless the government and Coalition forces can

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