BAGHDAD – Iraq’s major Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties have told anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to disband his Mahdi Army militia or leave politics, lawmakers and officials involved in the effort said Sunday.
Such a bold move risks a violent backlash by al-Sadr’s Shiite militia. But if it succeeds, it could cause a major realignment of the political landscape.
The first step will be adding language to a draft election bill banning parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall, the officials and lawmakers said. The government intends to send the draft to parliament within days and hopes to win approval within weeks.
“We, the Sadrists, are in a predicament,” lawmaker Hassan al-Rubaie said Sunday. “Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament.”
Al-Sadr controls 30 of the 275 parliament seats, a substantial figure but not enough to block legislation.
Al-Rubaie said the threat was so serious that a delegation might have to discuss the issue with al-Sadr in person. The young cleric, who has disappeared from the public eye for nearly a year, is believed to be in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
In a rare public signal of dissent in Sadrist ranks, al-Rubaie complained that “those close” to al-Sadr “are radicals and that poses problems,” suggesting that some of the cleric’s confidants may be pushing him toward a showdown.
“We must go and explain to him in person that there’s a problem,” he said.
U.S. officials have been pressing Iraq’s government for years to disband the militias, including the Mahdi Army.
All major political parties are believed to maintain links to armed groups, although none acknowledges it. Some groups, including militias of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and al-Sadr’s chief rival, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, have been integrated into the government security services.
That put them nominally under the government’s authority, although they are believed to maintain ties to the political parties and retain their command structures.
Uprisings in 2004 by al-Sadr’s militiamen ended as a result of mediation by top Shiite clerics. Shiite leaders then attempted to bring the Sadrists into the political mainstream, offering them Cabinet posts and deferring to them on some major security issues.
But attacks by Shiite extremists continued, allegedly carried out by pro-Iranian splinter groups.
The militia issue took on new urgency after al-Maliki launched a major operation March 25 against Shiite extremists in Basra and fighting quickly spread from the southern port city to Baghdad and elsewhere.
Sadrists believed the Basra crackdown was aimed at weakening their movement before the fall elections. They insisted al-Maliki was encouraged to move against them by their chief Shiite rivals – the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
U.S. and Iraqi officials insist the crackdown is directed at criminal gangs and splinter groups supported by Iran.
Al-Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets March 30 under a deal brokered in Iran. But the truce left the militia intact and armed, and did not address the long-term threat.
“We want the Sadrists to disband the Mahdi Army. Just freezing it is no longer acceptable,” said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior adviser to al-Maliki. “The new election law will prevent any party that has weapons or runs a militia from contesting elections.”
Broad outlines of the strategy to combat the militias were made public late Saturday in a statement by the Political Council for National Security, a top leadership body including the national president, prime minister and leaders of major parties in parliament.
The statement called on parties to disband their militias or face a political ban. Although the statement did not mention the Sadrists, the intent was clear.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said Sunday that the statement was adopted after “heated, cordial, frank and transparent discussion.” Al-Rubaie and another Sadrist lawmaker who attended objected to the call for militias to disband, he said.