Don’t exclude al-Sadr

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BEIRUT.

The Iraqi government is about to make a major mistake: excluding Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from the political process.

On April 13, the Iraqi government approved a draft law barring any political party with a militia from participating in provincial elections set for October. While Sheik al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army were not specifically mentioned in the legislation, they are the intended target. Other Iraqi parties operate militias, but they have been largely absorbed into the Iraqi army or security forces. The bill is now before the Iraqi parliament.

The consequences of trying to isolate Sheik al-Sadr and his political movement are profound: He will lash out further at the Iraqi government and U.S. troops, his supporters will completely abandon the ceasefire he imposed last August and violence will spiral out of control once again. U.S. commanders credit Sheik al-Sadr’s ceasefire with a significant drop in both attacks on U.S. forces and sectarian bloodletting. Those highly touted gains made during the surge of U.S. troops will evaporate.

In singling out the Sadrists, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not trying to restore order. He wants to eliminate a political rival. In the process, he risks escalating an intra-Shi’ite civil war in oil-rich southern Iraq. The recent fighting in Basra was the latest chapter of a conflict between Sheik al-Sadr and his main rival for dominance of the Shi’ite heartland: the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, led by a U.S. and Iranian-backed cleric, Abdulaziz al-Hakim. Mr. al-Maliki and his Dawa Party are allied with Mr. Hakim, and they are using the Iraqi government to battle Sadr.

By launching last month’s offensive in Basra, Mr. al-Maliki’s main goal was to weaken the Sadrists before the provincial elections because he is worried that his bloc will lose to them. Unable to defeat the Sadrists militarily, Mr. al-Maliki and his allies are now trying to rig the system and keep Sheik al-Sadr out of politics.

It’s virtually impossible to wipe out the Sadrist trend, which is a social, political and military movement that enjoys wide support, particularly among young and poor Shi’ites.

If Mr. al-Maliki is serious, he should dissolve all militias including those linked to the government, especially the Supreme Council’s Badr militia. If the Iraqi government targets all the militias equally, the Sadrists would be forced to disband the Mahdi Army or risk a public backlash. Right now, most Iraqi Shi’ites can see that Sheik al-Sadr is being singled out.

The local elections are important because they will determine the makeup of provincial councils, and the winning faction will be able to appoint local governors. The Supreme Council is hoping to win the vote so that it can form an autonomous region in the Shi’ite south similar to the Kurdish one in northern Iraq. Sheik al-Sadr is opposed to this federal system; he argues that carving up Iraq into self-governing regions would lead to the country’s breakup.

The United States must avoid getting dragged into this intra-Shi’ite power struggle by its allies Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Hakim. This is not a purely Iraqi problem. If there is any hope of keeping violence down, U.S. forces need Sheik al-Sadr’s militia to adhere to its ceasefire. Mr. al-Maliki’s adventure in Basra last month forced U.S. commanders to commit resources for a battle meant to settle political scores between Shi’ite factions. If the United States gets further mired in this struggle, the only winner will be Iran, which supports all the Shi’ite factions. Nothing makes the Iranians happier than seeing U.S. troops caught up in internecine Iraqi fights.

Unlike Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Hakim, Sheik al-Sadr is a home-grown leader with genuine support inside Iraq. Since the U.S. invasion, Sheik al-Sadr has emphasized his two main claims to leadership: as the son of a revered ayatollah martyred by the Ba’ath regime and as someone who never left Iraq to live in comfortable exile. He also has tried to win support by creating a social-service network in Shi’ite cities, fiercely criticizing the U.S. occupation and modeling himself after his father’s vision of an activist clergyman.

It’s not too late to prevent Mr. al-Maliki and his allies from making a major error. Washington can pressure Mr. al-Maliki to change the draft election law, and to open a dialogue with Sheik al-Sadr. The United States has learned from its past mistakes; it now knows that it cannot simply wish Sheik al-Sadr away or marginalize him. Iraqi leaders must learn that same lesson.

Mohamad Bazzi, who covered Iraq as Newsday’s Middle East bureau chief, is the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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