Waiting for a Shi'ite Civil War

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Ali Abu Shish / Reuters

A woman walks among graves of members of the Shi'ite militia Mahdi Army at a cemetery in Najaf.

On Sunday Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed a "remarkable" decline in violence, saying the country may have finally moved beyond the Sunni-Shi'a sectarian conflict. While that level of optimism may be premature, the security situation has improved dramatically in recent months.

But with sectarian violence waning for the time being, the stage may be set for an escalation of the simmering battle among Shi'ites for control of southern Iraq. In Najaf, the spiritual center of Shi'ite Iraq, public displays of respect and cooperation mask an often violent competition between rival factions. Since shortly after the American invasion The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) — known until May 2007 as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI — has clashed, often violently, with followers of the Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. This summer Sadr announced a "freeze" in the activities of his Mahdi Army militia and the two sides have reached an uneasy truce. But residents in Najaf say the rivalry has simply gone underground. "The relationship between the two sides in the media is the opposite of reality," says a history professor who teaches near Najaf (concerned for his safety, he asked that his full name not be used). "Their relationship on the streets is [very] tense, and can reach the level of an explosion."

So far this fall the violence has not boiled over again into pitched battles, as it has several times in the past across southern Iraq. But residents in Najaf say militias loyal to SIIC and the Sadrists are engaged in more targeted violence. Aysser Ali, 35, said kidnappings and assassinations are the tactics of choice for now. "I would believe that nobody goes out of his house without thinking that somebody will come and shoot him in the head," Ali says. Still, he says he is hopeful that the public's growing weariness of militia violence will eventually calm the situation.

But another Najaf resident, Hassan Kammona, says that neither the Sadrists nor SIIC were doing enough to rein in their foot soldiers. "If the people in charge of security are serious — not just for Najaf but for all of Iraq — they have to educate their followers [about] how to respect the law," he says.

Discipline and deference to law and order, though, are rarely the strong suit of a militia. And the Sadrists, in particular, have little motivation to genuinely embrace the government. Sadr rose to prominence in 2003 and 2004 as an outsider claiming parties like SIIC did not represent poor and marginalized Shi'ites. After bloody fighting in 2004 he agreed to join the political process, and the Sadrists are power brokers in the national legislature. But they say they are still marginalized in regional governments.

The Sadrists assume that SIIC and its allies will continue postponing provincial elections to deny the Sadrists what they say is their rightful level of representation. Agreements and cease-fires aside, the Sadrists still put less faith in the power of democracy than they do in the power of their militia. "Of course, [because] the Sadrist movement has a base in the street," says Ali al-Mayali, a Sadrist member of parliament. "[It is] a base the other won't have — could never dream of having." In southern Iraq, political disputes are still more likely to be solved in the streets than at the ballot box.