BAGHDAD — A senior U.S. general said forces loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr are rising again in Iraq's south, engaging in intimidation, extortion, and political violence as politicians in Baghdad continue to negotiate over forming a government two months after national elections.
Maj. Gen. Vincent Brooks, in charge of U.S. forces in nine southern provinces, said he has not ruled out involvement by Sadrist paramilitaries or splinter groups in a string of deadly attacks Monday across the south.
"There's evidence in the past that they're not at all reticent to intimidate and to murder their fellow Shiite citizens, so I do not exclude them," said Brooks, commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division, in a telephone interview from Basra.
The violence, which killed 67 Iraqis and wounded almost 300 in 10 separate attacks across the south, included an attack on an imam who has spoken out against the militias and the bombing of a mosque.
It will likely be unclear for some time who was behind the attacks - the deadliest in Iraq this year. But the reactivation of the Sadr militia known as the Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) and other Shiite militias - not yet seen in Baghdad - would be a key warning sign of a resurgence of sectarian violence.
A recount of a portion of the votes from Iraq's election remains under way and most analysts expect it will still be some months before a government is formed.
"Are people looking to extralegal groups to protect themselves or are they looking to the state? That's why this four, five, six months of political uncertainty combined with the violence at least opens the aperture for groups like Jaish al-Mahdi to try to reconstitute," said Brett McGurk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former National Security Council official who worked on Iraq policy.
"You have to distinguish between the Sadrists as a (political) movement and the Sadrists as a tradition going back, and Jaish al-Mahdi, which is an entirely different animal," said McGurk. "Just because someone's a Sadrist doesn't mean they are a militant violent actor - far from it... They represent a part of the population that needs to have a political voice in Iraq."
WHO ARE THE SADRISTS?
For the U.S., which fought the Mahdi Army in the streets in 2004, and for the Sadrists' Shiite political rivals, the lines between the movement's political and other activities are far from clear. The Sadrists' main constituency are poor and dispossessed Shiites - many of them young men.
Much of Basra's oil fields and ports were controlled by Shiite militias until Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent in Iraqi Army forces two years ago to take back the south. The Iraqi Army broke a stranglehold on the city by the Mahdi Army, the Sadr movement's paramilitary wing, known for killings and corruption.
Following a cease-fire, the movement's leader, Sadr, who is in Iran pursuing his religious studies, suspended the militia.
"There is no more Jaish al-Mahdi at all," said Bahaa al-Araji, a leader of the Sadr movement, adding that the militia was now a religious and cultural institution. He added, however, that its fighters are waiting in the wings. "If the need arose - and the United States did not fulfill its commitment to withdraw from Iraq according to the timetable, and if the Iraqi government was not able to preserve security and keep the peace, it is possible at that moment for us to call on Jaish al-Mahdi."
The Sadr movement had a strong showing in the March elections, winning 40 seats in the 325-member parliament. In an indication of Iraq's fluid politics, the Sadrists and Maliki's State of Law coalition have found themselves in the same Shiite alliance that will likely form a governing coalition.
Forming that coalition, though, could take several months, and in the meantime, politically motivated violence has flared in the vacuum.
"We have seen some intimidation being done by local parties like the Sadrists engaging in old-fashioned methods like intimidation and extortion, particularly against police and police chiefs throughout the provinces," said Brooks.
Brooks said in the past three weeks the provincial police chiefs of Maysan, Dhikkar, Diwayniya and Najaf have either been demoted or replaced, with officials who have been historically friendly to Sadr interests put in charge.
The move could mean rising tension between the national security forces in the Iraqi Army and police chiefs more influenced by provincial Shiite politics.
Although Al Qaeda in Iraq was blamed by the Iraqi government for Monday's violence, the organization has traditionally had little presence in the overwhelmingly Shiite south, where most attacks have been linked to power struggles between competing Shiite parties - some of them linked to Iran. U.S. officials believe attacks on citizens have been designed to show that government security forces cannot maintain security.
"The location, the timing, and the type of target says to me it is political opportunism," Brooks said of Monday's attacks.
Sadr's cease-fire in 2008 led to a splintering of his armed followers, with part of the group refusing to renounce violence. Although the Mahdi Army is used by many U.S. officials as a general term for the Sadr militia, it has spun off into different groups with different agendas.
In Basra, despite strong political support for the Sadrists, particularly among the millions of poor, few would welcome a return to militia rule, which banned music, cigarette smoking, and women walking in the street in many of its strongholds. Hundreds of those who broke those bans were killed or tortured.
"We're afraid of the return of armed groups, whatever they call themselves," says Thair Mohammad, a Basra laborer who says many of his friends are followers of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Amin Qassim, a Basra University student, says there has been more of a Sadr presence since the elections.
"The places where they hold Friday prayers have been rebuilt and renovated and their numbers at the prayers are growing.... In their gatherings in their neighborhoods, they are talking of how they will return and punish all those who stood against them.... The return of the Mahdi Army is a thought that frightens many Basrawis," he says.
The Sadr movement refuses to meet with U.S. officials but McGurk says as a political entity, they share many of the same goals for Iraq - a strong central, nationalist government.
"They represent a significant mass of the population, particularly in the south," he says. "What they can't have and what most of the political leaders will not let them have is this Hezbollah-like entity on Iraqi soil."
(Special correspondent Ali al-Basri contributed reporting from Basra.)