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Sadr Followers to End Parliament Boycott

Reports that Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his radical movement will end a boycott of Iraq's parliament are raising a number of questions about politics in Iraq. Steve Inskeep talks with Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project Director with the International Crisis Group.

Review a little bit of history for us. Why did Sadr's group boycott parliament in the first place?

They were angered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to meet with President Bush in Jordan before Christmas.

Is it a hopeful sign at all that they have now decided to come back to the formal political process?

Well, it is certainly a good thing. I think that excluding, or having the Sadrists exclude themselves from Parliament can only further upset the political situation in Iraq. The Sadrists are a political movement that has widespread support among especially the poor Shiite underclass in Baghdad and other cities. To exclude them would serve to further destabilize the situation. They have a great potential of making trouble.

Why did they come back?

They never completely rejected the political process. They merely suspended their participation, and I think also that the impending U.S. military offensive in Baghdad may have convinced them to at least have the political people back into the political process will give them some protection from retaliation. Whereas the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, is probably going to melt away in Baghdad and maybe take actions against American forces elsewhere in the country.

Let's talk about that. You've got Muqtada al-Sadr's parliamentary followers who are above board politicians, at least in public politicians. On the other side you have this militia. You're saying they may be doing completely different strategies: One seeming peaceful; the other being as violent as possible?

That has been Sadr's policy from the beginning. Even in the first elections in January 2005, the Sadrists officially were not participating, but defacto they were part of the Shiite alliance as independents. In the second elections, there were Sadrists who were openly participating as Sadrists and there were others who were opposing the political process, yet they were all part of the same movement.

Are they actually controlled by the same guy? Does Muqtada al-Sadr really tell both those groups what to do?

That's a very good question. It does seem the Sadrists have become more and more unmanageable as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, but I do think the political and military sides are still roughly under the command of Muqtada al-Sadr. He certainly has the ability of calling them out into the street. It's not clear he has the ability to call them to go back into their homes. It does seem there are spin-offs from the Mahdi army that are basically loose elements operating autonomously within Baghdad neighborhoods.

You forecast that as U.S. troops flood Baghdad as part of this so called surge, that Sadr's militia may melt away but remain active. Have Sadr's militia men already said we're going to go underground but continue fighting in response to the U.S. increase in troops?

No, there has been no public announcement of that sort, but we have seen some indication that some of the militiamen may be melting away. Muqtada al-Sadr himself has said that no retaliation will be carried out until after the holy month of Muharram, that has just started, especially the Ashura celebration of the Shiites.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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