– Moqtada al-Sadr extends ceasefire for another six months
– Rogue elements of the Mahdi army continue to battle other Shiite factions and contribute to sectarian strife
– With the latest ceasefire in place, large-scale sectarian violence is unlikely in the near term
On February 22, 2008, radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi militia to extend a unilateral ceasefire by at least another six months. The United States strongly welcomed the move, citing the truce contributed to a drop in sectarian violence.
More than 5,000 followers packed a mosque in the city of Kufa where al-Sadr conveyed his decision to extend the ceasefire. He was quoted stating, “I extend the freeze on activities by the Mahdi Army to the 15th of the holy month of Shaban. I thank you for your understanding and patience and jihad.” Both the US and Iraqi government paid close attention to Moqtada’s declaration, as it was seen as vital in maintaining stability throughout the country.
A Changing of Ways
In August 2007, the Shiite clergyman announced a six-month ceasefire after clashes erupted between his Mahdi army and fighters from a rival militia belonging to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of Iraq’s most powerful political parties. The clash between the Mahdi military and SCIRI’s Badr organization left 52 Iraqi’s dead in the holy city of Karbala.
Following the bloody confrontation, Moqtada al-Sadr unilaterally declared a ceasefire, claiming the truce would allow him to rid his militia of thugs and provocateurs. The US immediately welcomed the ceasefire, as it coincided with Sunni rebel groups in western Iraq joining forces with the US against Al Qaeda in Iraq and amid a “surge” in American troop numbers.
However, al-Sadr’s willingness to confront so-called “rogue elements” within his movement is seen by the United States as the radical cleric changing his ways. One reason may be the adverse effects of his involvement in fighting with rival Shiite factions. Specifically, the rivalry chipped away al-Sadr’s reputation as an uncompromising nationalist leader seeking Iraq’s full sovereignty and undermining his hopes of becoming a national leader. Additionally, Moqtada al-Sadr’s aides claimed the time was right for a ceasefire, primarily designed to avoid a Shiite-Shiite rift from spiraling out of control.
Recently, the US has taken a more conciliatory tone with their once sworn enemy. Specifically, until now, the US military often referred to Moqtada al-Sadr as “Seyyed”, an incendiary title indicating he is a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. According to the military, dialogue with al-Sadr is welcomed, something that was unheard of years ago.
Despite the fact that Moqtada al-Sadr extended his ceasefire, the organization continues to battle against the effects of a number of rogue elements. Some of Sadr’s supporters argue that rival Shiite factions within the government’s security forces have used the August 2007 truce as cover to arrest and assassinate Mahdi army leaders. Many of these supporters opposed the latest extension by al-Sadr and are calling for a return to arms.
The United States often refers to rogue elements as “special groups” funded by Iran. The Iraqi government and US military have cracked down on these “special groups” since the ceasefire and pledged to continue the crackdown against the breakaway factions. However, the US military insists Moqtada al-Sadr’s supporters who abide by the latest ceasefire will be treated with “respect” and “restraint.” However, a significant amount of al-Sadr followers dismiss these claims and remain opposed to the organization’s stance claiming US and Iraqi forces have taken advantage of the truce by continuing to arrest them.
As the arrests and raids continue, Moqtada al-Sadr will find it increasingly difficult to control his organization, specifically, against splitting and attacking US military and Iraqi government forces.
The latest ceasefire declared by Moqtada al-Sadr is great news for the US and Iraqi government. The drop in sectarian violence can be largely attributed to al-Sadr’s ceasefire in August, which is why the Iraqi government and US urged al-Sadr to extend the ceasefire.
Extending the ceasefire also allows al-Sadr to distance himself from the thuggish violence of members of his militia, while at the same time keeping the organization intact despite calls that it be disbanded. However, we anticipate rogue elements from the Sadrist movement will defy al-Sadr’s ceasefire. However, with the larger Mahdi Army temporarily neutralized, large-scale sectarian violence will be avoided in the near-term.
While some American officials believe al-Sadr may be changing his ways, the radical cleric can just as easily be biding his time until surge troops begin leaving in July 2008. If there is one thing that can be learned from Moqtada al-Sadr it is that he is notoriously unpredictable.