At the start of May, US troops blockaded Sadr City, the huge mainly-Shia district of Baghdad where two and a half million people live and is the stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
They stopped food ration supplies. They moved in to the area close behind Iraqi government troops (close, probably, to deter the troops from deserting, as many did when the Iraqi army attacked the Mahdi Army in Basra in March/April).
They bombed the area. They build huge dividing walls to limit Mahdi Army movements. On 8 March, the Iraqi army told residents of a part of Sadr City to move out of their homes before the area was blown to bit by American bombs. The focus on that area, apparently, was because it is close to the Green Zone and missiles have been fired from it into the Zone.
According Leila Fadel, reporting for the McClatchy news agency: “Two soccer fields in east and northeast Baghdad are expected to receive some 16,000 evacuees from the southeast portion of the city where the fighting has been most intense.
“Colonel Abdul Amir Risna Sigar... said [he] would set up 500 tents around the two fields...”
The residents, understandably, refused to move. (16,000 people on two soccer fields is a space of about 80cm x 80cm for each person!)
On 12 May, a tentative ceasefire was negotiated between Moqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki’s army can come into Sadr City and search for heavy weapons (the Mahdi Army says it has none); Maliki has dropped his demand for the Mahdi Army to disband, and promised he will “try to refrain” from calling on the US army as back-up; the Mahdi Army says it will refrain from displaying weapons on the streets.
The BBC reports about 1000 people killed in the attack on Sadr City – mostly not Mahdi Army fighters.
Comments by US commanders indicate more caution now than when they launched a huge assault on the city of Fallujah in 2004. They want to push back the Mahdi Army incrementally, rather than risk full-scale war. “We are obviously in support of the Government of Iraq as they move forward in a dialog with elements of the Sadr Trend”, “I hope Moqtada al-Sadr continues to depress violence”, and so on.
At the same time, though, the Iraqi army and the US are launching a new offensive in Mosul, described by its provincial governor as “under the control of Al Qaeda”. Death rates in Iraq, lower since August 2007, are rising again.
The official story about these offensives is that they are about suppressing militias and establishing civil order in Iraq. But the Badr Corps, the militia of the Shia-Islamist, ISCI/ SCIRI, one of the main parties in Maliki’s government coalition, is well known to be deeply embedded in the official army.
The Worker-communist Party of Iraq, through the Iraqi Freedom Congress, declared: “Under the guise of National Guard and police forces, the Badr militias of the Islamic Supreme Council and Dawa Party militias played a significant role in these bloody events... They are justifying their heinous crimes by saying that they are combating the outlaws, meaning the Mahdi Army”.
The Mahdi Army, so Patrick Cockburn’s new book on its leader Moqtada al-Sadr makes clear, is a deeply reactionary clericalist movement. Despite al-Sadr’s sporadic appeals to Sunnis on an Arab-Iraqi-nationalist basis, there is strong evidence of the movement “purging” previously mixed or Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad, and killing many Sunnis.
The movement’s very name is sectarian, in the circumstances. In the Shia tradition, “the Mahdi” is the “hidden” Twelfth Imam, one of the martyrs of Sunni “usurpation”, who has been in hiding for over a thousand years but will eventually reappear to bring peace and justice.
Al-Sadr has said that the Mahdi will reappear very soon. The Americans invaded Iraq because they knew this, and wanted to seize and kill the Mahdi.
Despite this, the Mahdi Army has mass support among poorer Shia, as a movement less corrupt and more assertive against the Americans than the returning-exile-led Shia-Islamist movements, ISCI/SCIRI and Dawa. That popular support will surely have been increased by the sufferings of the people of Sadr City in recent weeks.
The Maliki government and the USA are trying to “test” and “harden” the Iraqi army. But these operations push the creation of a livable political framework in Iraq further away, not bring it nearer.
Neither the militia-ridden Iraqi army, nor the reactionary and sectarian Mahdi Army, can win self-determination and democracy for Iraq. Hope lies with Iraq’s much-harassed workers’ movement.
Dockers at Umm Qasr, near Basra, struck for one hour on 1 May in solidarity with the US West Coast dockers’ protest against the American occupation. “We are struggling today to defeat both the occupation and the sectarian militias’ agenda”, they declared in a letter to the US dockers.