A Maliki-Sadr Breakup?

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S Wissam Al-Okaili / AFP / Getty

Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaking during weekly Friday prayers at a mosque in the town of Kufa, Iraq, in November, 2006.

Has the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided to sever its alliance with Moqtada al-Sadr? It sure sounds like it if you listen to top Maliki adviser Sadiq al-Rikabi criticize Sadr: "You cannot be in the government and working against the government at the same time. You cannot be a part of the government while breaking the law. If you're going to be a part of the government, you should respect the institutions of the government."

Among Maliki's major political assets were his ties to Moqtada al-Sadr. The argument was that Maliki could help moderate the fiery Shi'ite militia leader. And so, when sectarian violence began escalating dramatically in February 2006, U.S. forces repeatedly held back from a major confrontation with the Madhi Army at Maliki's behest. But there has been no sign of moderation on Sadr's part. Indeed, in November, Sadr ordered the 30 parliamentarians and four ranking government officials of his political bloc to end participation in the government in protest of Maliki's meeting with President Bush. Meanwhile, Sadr's Mahdi Army continues to ethnically cleanse districts in Baghdad. Says Rikabi about Maliki's problems with Sadr: "It's not only the boycott." But for starters, Rikabi said Maliki will move to fill the four cabinet posts left empty by officials loyal to Sadr.

When Sadr's supporters first withdrew from Maliki's coalition government, both sides downplayed the rift. Nasar al-Rubaie, the head of the Sadr bloc in parliament, described the boycott as a temporary protest, saying the move did not represent an indefinite withdrawal from the government. And politicians of Maliki's Dawa party said the Sadr faction was likely to return in a short time, perhaps a matter of days. But both sides seem to have lost interest in remaking an alliance since then. Sadr has made no meaningful move to rejoin the government, even as Maliki's office seemed to hold the door open for his return through November and December. Rikabi and others close to Maliki say Sadr is no longer considered a workable ally. "Sadr's people have their own political vision, and we definitely do not agree with them," says Kamal al-Sa'iday, a minister of parliament and longtime confidant to Maliki from the Prime Minister's Dawa party. "And Sadr's followers have decided themselves to leave the political process."

If indeed Maliki has decided to break with Sadr, the move in essence opens the way for U.S. forces to attack the Mahdi Army without political hindrances. In fact, as relations between Maliki and Sadr soured toward the end of 2006, the Prime Minister began to take a harder line with Sadr, at least rhetorically. Last week Maliki himself vowed to confront all armed groups, airing a thinly veiled threat to the Mahdi Army. But Maliki has issued similar statements before without offering any action. It's been difficult to tell whether Maliki lacks the will or simply the ability to launch military attacks against Sadr's militia, which clashed openly with U.S. forces in Najaf in 2004.

Whatever the case has been, Maliki isn't likely to play a significant role in any confrontation to come. The Iraqi Army may or may not be fully under Maliki's control at this point, meaning Iraqi officers may simply ignore any orders from him that run contrary to their own sectarian agendas. U.S. troops who work with the Iraqi Army in Baghdad say Iraqi soldiers are showing greater sympathy to militias as the city's sectarian fighting grows still bloodier. In the battle for Baghdad, the Iraqi Army is unpredictable at best, virtually defunct at worst. That means most of the fighting President Bush predicts will come in Baghdad in the months ahead will likely be done by Americans, despite hopes to the contrary.