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iraq’s cold war
street battles between former and current terrorist militias

Special Correspondent
Two of Iraq’s best known Shiite Muslim groups are fighting one another for influence and authority. The Sadrist movement, formerly an armed militia, and the League of the Righteous, currently classified as a…
26.09.2013  |  Baghdad
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr on the streets.
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr on the streets.

There’s a Cold War going on on Baghdad’s streets between two prominent Shiite Muslim groups. And at times the struggle for power and influence over local Shiite Muslims between the two former allies, the Sadrist movement and the extremist Islamic militia, the League of the Righteous, has led to violence. The last incident occurred about a month ago and as with many of the other violent clashes like this, resulted in casualties. However, as with many of the other incidents, these events tend not to be widely publicized.

The League of the Righteous, or Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Arabic, was founded around 2004 by former leaders in the Mahdi Army, the military wing of the Sadrist movement, a political-religious movement headed by firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sadrist movement was very much opposed to the US presence in Iraq and the Mahdi Army fought against international troops while they were in Iraq.

However when the Mahdi Army declared a ceasefire, the League of Righteous, which had already split from the main movement, continued with a military campaign against international forces in Iraq.It declared itself an official armed resistance group in 2007.

The League is led by Qais Khazali, a former right hand man to al-Sadr and a follower of al-Sadr’s father. Both men now say they are carrying on the elder al-Sadr’s legacy. The other well known founders and leaders of the League include Mohammed al-Tabatabai, Akram al-Kaabi from Basra and Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji from Baghdad. All of these turban-wearing young men were formerly close to al-Sadr junior.

And that split has only grown. In 2011, news agency Associated Press reported that the League no longer has “al-Sadr\'s backing, and an Iraqi close to the extremist group said it relies on Iran for support, including around $5 million in cash and weapons each month. Officials believe there are fewer than 1,000 Asaib Ahl al-Haq militiamen, and their leaders live in Iran”.

A source close to the League told NIQASH this was true. “They use their money to try and attract more followers,” the source said. “Mostly those new followers are from the Sadrist movement.”

Both groups remain close to the Iranian state, a theocracy led by Shiite Muslims. The way they express this support differs though. The League of the Righteous hang pictures of Iran\'s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, in their offices and on religious occasions. However Muqtada al-Sadr prefers not to do this – in fact, recently some of his supporters tore down pictures like this from where they were hanging in Sadr City, a mainly Shiite Muslim part of Baghdad.

Over the past year or so, political statements issued by the two factions have also shown marked differences. Informants in al-Sadr’s offices say that many of the cleric’s political advisors have been replaced – apparently the switch was motivated by Shiite Muslim advisers based in Lebanon who had convinced al-Sadr that it was important to gain some distance from the Iranians.

The two groups’ reactions to anti-government protests by Sunni Muslims in Iraq have also differed. A lot of Shiite Muslim politicians stayed silent when these protests began. The Iraqi government is currently led by a coalition of mainly Shiite Muslim parties and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is a Shiite Muslim.

Some Shiite Muslim politicians described the protestors as terrorists. However al-Sadr, whose support for al-Maliki has waxed and waned over the past two years, spoke out in defence of the Sunni Muslim demonstrators, saying that their demands needed consideration.

The League of the Righteous did nothing of the sort, and continued to express support only for members of their own sect. Protestors are now accusing the League of being behind assassinations and other violence against Sunni Muslims in Baghdad and in the south of Iraq.

Al-Sadr has done more than just talk about defending Iraq’s Sunni Muslims. For example, in Diyala, the Sadrists allied themselves with the Sunni Muslim-dominated Iraqiya list to form the local government after recent provincial elections. In doing this, the Sadrists abandoned their traditional Shiite Muslim allies.

“The main reason we allied with the Sunnis in Diyala was to send a message to the country’s Sunnis, assuring them that we stand against sectarianism,” MP Jawad al-Jibouri, of the Sadrist movement, told NIQASH.

Another difference between the Sadrist movement and their former friends, the League of the Righteous, is their official political representation. With their Ahrar bloc, the Sadrists have 40 seats in the 325 seat Iraqi Parliament and they also have a handful of ministerial positions. This makes the Sadrists influential politically. Meanwhile, despite rumours that the League of Righteous was going to become a legitimate political entity, the League has no political representation. In fact, The Sadrists even threatened to take the League to court if they entered politics, saying the League\'s hands were stained with Iraqi blood.

Another difference: in Parliament, Sadrist leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has not been backward in criticising the current government and in particular, al-Maliki. At one stage, he seemed to be using each and any occasion to criticise the way al-Maliki was running the country; at one stage, the Sadrists were part of the coalition of politicians trying to unseat al-Maliki because of what they saw as his power-grabbing and dictatorial ways.

Meanwhile the League has not been critical of al-Maliki at all. In fact, the extremist faction has what appears to be a very friendly relationship with the al-Maliki government. The League doesn’t criticise politicians from within its own sect and observers say the al-Maliki government has granted the group many privileges.

Additionally, as one member of the protestors’ coordinating committees in Anbar suggests, the government has been looking the other way when it comes to League’s violence directed against Sunni Muslims in Iraq.

“The alliance that al-Maliki has built with the League of the Righteous is a cheap political shot,” Diaa al-Asadi, the head of the Ahrar bloc, told NIQASH. “His aim is to blackmail the Sadrist movement by associating with our own dissidents.”

And then of course, there are also the violent clashes as the two parties try to extend their influence. The competition between them began as a war of words, with al-Sadr famously criticising the League for their vanity and ego and saying that he was sick of their “evil deeds” and that they were no part of his family. But it has since moved to regular skirmishes on the streets of Shiite Muslim neighbourhoods.

Recently al-Sadr announced again that he was retiring from politics. Whether this has anything to do with the League or whether al-Sadr, who has said this kind of thing before, will stick to his word, is uncertain as yet. The only thing that is clear right now is that, despite saying they have put down their weapons, both groups clearly still have guns and they’re obviously prepared to use them.