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Shi'ite infighting opens new front in Iraq

Mariam Karouny

August 28, 2005

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A power struggle in Iraq between powerful Shi'ite factions could complicate efforts to stabilize the country as it heads toward a referendum on its new draft constitution, officials said.

Clashes that erupted last week between supporters of a powerful Shi'ite party in the governing coalition and militiamen loyal to a maverick Shi'ite cleric brought into public view long-standing faultlines in Iraqi politics.

Officials fear tensions will heighten before an October 15 referendum on a draft constitution passed without support from Arab Sunnis, whose community is the seat of an insurgency against the Shi'ite-led government and U.S. forces defending it.

The Badr movement, associated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and descended from a military force that fought Saddam Hussein from Iran, clashed with the Mehdi Army of fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf.

"What happened in Najaf is just the tip of the iceberg, it could happen again at any time and for any reason," said a senior Iraqi politician who is not a Shi'ite. "All Shi'ite leaders -- including Iran -- stepped in to stop it because the last thing they want is internal Shi'ite fighting."

The Najaf clashes quickly spread to other cities, including Baghdad. Clerics armed with pistols and AK-47 assault rifles supervised young militiamen as they set up positions.

After decades of oppression under Saddam, Shi'ites and Kurds came to power in January elections boycotted by the Sunnis.

But fighting in the sacred Shi'ite city of Najaf reminded Iraqi leaders -- still dependent on U.S. troops more than two years after Saddam's fall -- their security crisis could deepen.


Although most Shi'ites voted for the Iraqi Alliance coalition in January, which comprised the main Shi'ite political parties, many take their political cue from religious figures, not necessarily represented in government.

Some back SCIRI's Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is resented by many Sunnis and some Shi'ites because he spent years in Iran and his associated Badr Brigade movement fought against Iraq in the 1980-1988 war with neighboring, non-Arab Shi'ite Iran.

These days, the highly disciplined Badr movement, originally formed by captive Iraqi soldiers who fought for Iran, can be seen in green military uniforms patrolling Baghdad's streets.

Some Iraqis accuse them of operating in hit squads alongside Iraqi security forces. They deny the allegations.

Other Shi'ites are loyal to Sadr, who has fought two bloody uprisings against U.S. forces and also won a big following by speaking out for the poor in a country with poor basic services.

To complicate matters for the government, he has forged an alliance with some Sunni groups who support his anti-U.S. stance. Unlike Hakim, Sadr never left Iraq, not even after the assassination of his father and two brothers in 1999, allegedly by Saddam's agents.

Sadr also commands respect because he is from a family of revered clerics.

Hakim's father, Mohsen, was a co-founder of the Islamic political movement established in Iraq in the late 1950s, along with Sadr's relative, Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr.

Those bonds between families no longer exist in today's Iraq, rocked by suicide bombings and assassinations.

Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has been a moderating force, even after suicide bombings killed dozens of Shi'ites at a time.

Although he is consulted on many issues, Sistani stays out of politics so he is unlikely to intervene between the Badr Brigade and the Mehdi Army unless their rivalry explodes.

After the Najaf fighting erupted, the Badr commander denied any involvement and Sadr praised the rival group.

"There are lines that both must not cross no matter what, at the end of the day whether you are a Sadr supporter or SCIRI's , you are a Shi'ite and this should be in your head all the time," said a Shi'ite official.

ę Reuters 2005. All rights reserved.


:: Article nr. 15164 sent on 29-aug-2005 18:31 ECT


Link: today.reuters.com/news/NewsArticle.aspx?type=worldNews&storyID=2005-08-29T143153

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