From One Dictator to the Next

BAGHDAD — Many Iraqis have come to believe that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is just as much a dictator as Saddam Hussein was.

“Al-Maliki is a dictator who must be removed by all means,” 35-year-old Abdul-Riza Hussein, a Mehdi Army member from Sadr City in Baghdad told IPS. “He is a worse dictator than Saddam; he has killed in less than two years more than Saddam killed in 10 years.”

Following the failed attempt by the U.S.-backed al-Maliki to crack down on the Mehdi Army militia of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the situation in Iraq has become much worse. Iraq appears to be splintering more widely under this rule than under Saddam’s.

Fierce fighting has broken out between Sadr’s Mehdi Army and Maliki’s army and police forces in Baghdad, which comprise mostly the Badr Organisation militia, the armed wing of the political group, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC).

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. military in Baghdad, there has been a sharp increase in attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces, from 239 in February to 631 in March. Most of these attacks are believed to have been carried out by the Mehdi Army.

The Mehdi Army is known to have substantial control of the streets of Baghdad, Basra, and many other predominantly Shia areas in southern Iraq.

But there is also considerable Shia support for Maliki’s effort to disarm the Mehdi Army. “Those who shout loud against Maliki and his legally elected government are all thieves and murderers and must be executed,” says Aziz Mussawi, a resident of Hilla, 100km south of Baghdad, who fled for Baghdad when the clashes started there last month. “These militias will destroy Iraq if left unleashed.”

Many Iraqis feel caught in a cross-fire in what they see as a battle for power between the Shia factions. “Over a thousand Iraqis got killed and more than that number wounded just for a game of chess between warlords,” Mohammad Alwan, a lawyer in Baghdad told IPS. “All of them call for dissolving militias while they keep militias of their own. Most of those in power in the government are militia leaders.”

Sadr and his followers are calling for unity, in an attempt to bring as many Iraqis as they can, Sunni and Shia, to their side. The rival Fadhila Party, that is powerful in many Shia provinces and in cities like Basra where it holds the governorship, has also called for unity.

It is widely believed in Iraq that parties who call for unity are using the issue to get public support against federalism, seen to be supported by the U.S. and Iranian backed parties such as the SIIC and Maliki’s Dawa Party. Many in Iraq see federalism as the break-up of the country.

After five years of occupation and suffering, with no end to it in sight, many Iraqis have become skeptical of all political and religious leaders.

“Sadr is another face of the Iranian project, despite their pretending to be a national movement,” Jassam Hady, a colonel of the former Iraqi army in Baghdad told IPS. “All those in the Iraqi government in the so-called Green Zone have militias that have killed Iraqis under one flag or another.”

Hady, like many Iraqis, believes that the current spasm of violence will worsen as the two main Shia groups, the Sadr Movement and Maliki’s affiliations, continue to vie for power ahead of the provincial elections slated for October.

Division has broken out also within tribes; many have now come to back Sadr, not because they like him, but because they hate the Badr militia of Hakeem’s SIIC and Maliki’s Dawa party.

“Our problem in the southern parts of Iraq and other Shia dominated areas is that all options are bad,” the chief of a major tribe in Basra who fled for Baghdad, told IPS on condition of anonymity. “Iranian controlled militias killed so many chiefs of tribes because they refused to support these division projects concealed under the flag of federalism.”

Several tribes in the south have formed unions to fight the separation project, but some sheikhs have formed counter unions to support the Badr and Dawa agenda.

Most people seem to oppose any federalism that would separate Shia from Sunni Muslims.

“We will be weak without our Sunni brothers,” says Shamil Mahmood from Sadr City, the east district of two million in Baghdad. “The whole of the south will be swallowed by Iran, that will humiliate us and treat us like animals.”

(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East)