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Daily Column
Iraq Papers: Mahdi Army, Defiant or Disarmed?
Rumours Confirmed: Maliki Changes Negotiating Team for US-Iraq Security Treaty
By AMER MOHSEN 08/29/2008 8:46 PM ET
It is very difficult to ascertain the status of the (now officially defunct) Mahdi Army based on Arab press reports. On the one hand, outlets such as al-‘Arabiya (Saudi-financed, pro-US) have been publishing successive reports on the “disarming” of the Mahdi Army, the “extension” of the disarmament order, and Muqtada’s “strict orders” for his followers to refrain from bearing arms.

On the other hand, outlets such as Az-Zaman have been presenting the armed Sadrists as the next Hizbollah. Other papers, such as al-Hayat (Saudi-financed, pro-US, but maintains a modicum of professionalism with local reporting,) have been vacillating between the two lines. To add to the confusion, papers like al-Mada choose to “fudge” the topic, rarely following the Mahdi Army developments with few pieces of original reporting on the topic.

Today, Az-Zaman appeared with a very suggestive headline (London edition): “the Mahdi Army announces its commitment to fighting and rejects Sadr’s orders to freeze its activities.” The headline was a Az-Zaman’s “summary” of an AFP story, where Sadrist fighters were interviewed following Muqtada’s announcement that the “freeze” on military activities has been extended “indefinitely.”

According to Az-Zaman, a large proportion of the young militiamen interviewed said that they will carry on fighting against coalition forces – even if that leads to their expulsion from the mainstream movement. Muqtada has repeatedly threatened that any Sadrist transgressing the truce will be automatically shunned by the organization. But the same Sadrist officials also speak of “a select elite” of fighters that, they say, will remain for the purpose of combating foreign occupiers.

Moreover, several Mahdi Army “offshoots” – Shi'a armed groups that self-identify as “Sadrist” but are institutionally independent from Muqtada’s mainstream Current – have grown on the edges of Sadr’s movement and continue to announce attacks against Coalition forces in Iraq. The two most famous of these groups are Hizbollah-Iraq and ‘Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq.

Also on the Sadrist Current, the Baghdad edition of Az-Zaman headlined with worrisome news: “Sadr calls on the Peshmerga to hand over Diyala to the regular Army.” Close followers of events in Iraq might recall the recent skirmishes between government troops and Peshmerga units that had taken control of several regions outside the borders of the Kurdistan Region.

The locals did not seem to mind the Peshmerga presence, since they maintained some degree of order in an extremely turbulent province. But since these regions are considered “contested areas” (zones outside of Kurdistan that the Kurdish parties want to affiliate with the Kurdistan Region,) and since Peshmerga presence beyond the “blue line” is considered unconstitutional, Maliki ordered the Peshmerga units to evacuate the city and public buildings that they, and the two Kurdish parties, which effectively ran the local administration, had occupied.

The paper said that Sadr asked, in his weekly sermon, that Iraqi flags be raised “in Kurdish regions in Diyala” (Az-Zaman’s rendition of Sadr’s comments.) But aside from Az-Zaman’s sensationalism, the report shows a growing trend of aggressive exchanges between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, threatening further inter-ethnic tensions. Kurdish leaders considered Maliki’s request and the Army’s entry into Khanqeen (one of the disputed areas) as “a form of political pressure” against the Kurds, warning that security could deteriorate in Peshmerga-free areas.

In other news, Pan-Arab al-Hayat confirmed the rumors that we had reported (with a degree of suspicion) earlier this week, claiming that Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki has made a wholesale replacement of the Iraqi negotiating team engaged in talks with the US over the strategic Security Agreement.

The reports show that negotiations may not be going as well as US and Iraqi officials claim, and that Maliki may be pressed to reach a quick resolution to the impasse. According to the London-based paper, al-Maliki will replace the Foreign Ministry team with a more hands-on approach: he will charge his own staff and advisers with the task, which he will personally supervise.


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