BAGHDAD - The release this week by US forces of Sheikh Laith al-Khazali, a high-ranking member of the militant Shi’a group Asa’ib Ahil al-Haq, has fueled a rumor in Sadr city that has many residents concerned. Developments related to the group, which is thought to be backed by Iran, are said to be in the works.
Al-Khazali’s brother Qais, who leads the group, is also expected to be released soon. Both were arrested in connection to incidents which lead to the killing of US soldiers and the kidnapping of five British civilians, one of whom has been killed. The releases are thought to be the first part of a behind-the-scenes deal which could culminate in the release of the four remaining hostages.
In Sadr City, there is said to be a sizable disagreement between groups within the power structure that has previously made up the Mahdi Army. Some of its former high-ranking members are thought to have stopped dealing with the Sadrist leadership altogether, and have joined the ranks of Asa’ib Ahil al-Haq. The group is generally thought to be fully supported by Iran - receiving weapons, funding, training, intelligence, etc. Some of the other leaders are said to be currently in Iran, receiving training and direction.
With a return of Muqtada al-Sadr to Iraq looking imminent in the near future, a showdown between the two factions over control of Sadr City is being anticipated. Even though both are assumed to have Iranian backing, Iran is seen to be omnipresent in Iraq, even supporting multiple rival factions and newspapers with opposing ideas. There are jokes about politicians complaining that an election wasn’t fair, because “Iran backed all of the candidates”.
One option particularly feared in Sadr City (often called “al-Medina” – Arabic for “The City”) is a return of the “Shari’a Court”. In the days of 2006 and 2007 when the Mahdi Army walked the streets of Sadr City openly, this strict interpretation (and a misguided one, perceived by many) of Islamic law was enforced by self-styled “courts”, made up of Mahdi Army appointed leaders. Offenses of a wide range of “non-virtuous behavior” (including clothing and hair style) were dealt with harshly and often violently. The extremist interpretation of Shari’a threatened all without the mafia-like clout enjoyed by the leaders of Baghdad’s militias, and the violent subjugation of women in particular led to the usage of the term, “the Talibanization of Iraq”.
If indeed, a showdown between the current followers of al-Sadr and Asa’ib Ahil al-Haq occurs, and if a clear winner gains dominance over large parts of al-Medina, one of two forms of the Shari’a Court is expected, even if it is not expected to be employed to the same extent as in past years. Though neither form are relished by Sadr City residents, the one expected to be enforced by Asa’ib Ahil al-Haq is seen as being closer to Iran’s form of Shari’a, milder and less-restrictive than the more severe version preferred in the past by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr.