BAGHDAD - A massacre by members of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army
on Sunni worshippers earlier this month sparked clashes between patrolling Kurdish
militiamen in southwest Baghdad and the Mahdi army, raising tensions that fighting
between the groups could spread.
Sadr, who emerged from hiding Friday, delivered a fiery anti-occupation sermon
at a mosque in the city of Kufa, south of Baghdad and near Najaf. On the same
day, Iraqi police told reporters that the leader of the Mahdi army in the southern
city of Basra, Abu Qadir, was killed in a gun battle with British soldiers.
This recent development could have far-reaching implications, even into the
volatile city of Kirkuk in the Kurdish-controlled north, where tensions run
high between Arab Shia and Kurds. Kurdish groups are intent on controlling the
city and forcing other groups out, so as to control the oil-rich surrounding
area to facilitate the creation of an independent Kurdish state.
Dressed in official police uniforms, and in order to gain access through a
checkpoint to detain Sunni worshippers at a mosque in the area, Mahdi army members
told Kurdish members of the Iraqi army who were participating in the crackdown
in the southwest areas of Baghdad that they were following orders from the Ministry
A member of the local council in the area of Baghdad where the incident took
place spoke with IPS at his office on condition of strict anonymity: "The
dispute started when the Mahdi army members raided the Bayaa and Amil area to
arrest 14 worshippers at a Sunni mosque while broadcasting a message through
loudspeakers that they were conducting the raid by orders from Brigadier General
Nizar, the Kurdish platoon leader."
The Kurdish unit was placed in the Amil and Bayaa areas of southwest Baghdad
in March as part of the security crackdown there led by the U.S. military.
"The detainees were found executed later, so we understood that the force
was in fact a death squad working for the Ministry of Interior," he added.
"Brigadier Nizar later revealed that fact to the media, saying the attacking
force had an official warrant from the Ministry of Interior and that was why
he allowed them to go through his checkpoints."
Local policemen believe that the Shia militia, operating out of the Ministry
of Interior as they have been for over two years now, also attempted to provoke
a fight between the Kurdish unit in Baghdad and the local community in the area
they were deployed, which is heavily Sunni.
Two weeks ago Mahdi army members attacked the Kurdish unit. It is unknown if
anyone was killed or wounded from either side, since orders from both the leaders
of the Kurds and the Mahdi army ceased media coverage of the event.
Sources from inside the Kurdish unit involved in the incident, who spoke with
IPS on condition of anonymity since they were instructed not to speak with the
media, explained that Kurdish soldiers and officers remain angry about the attack
on their unit, but they had received strict orders from their command in northern
Iraq not to fight back against the Mahdi army at the moment, but "to deal
firmly with any further attacks in the future."
As a result, tensions are high and the urge to blame someone for the instability
in the area has increased.
An eyewitness to the 14 Sunni men being detained by the Mahdi army spoke with
IPS, requesting his name withheld. He believes the U.S. military has taken sides
between the militias and are pitting them against one another.
"This area was peaceful and the mixture of Shia and Sunni had no dispute
whatsoever," he said. "It's the militias who started all the killing
in order to divide people and rule them."
The situation at southwest Baghdad is so tense that daily gun battles are heard
and people cannot leave their houses for work or shopping for food. As of Sunday,
U.S. forces in the area are applying a curfew in order to control the situation.
During his speech on Friday, Sadr announced, "I say to our Sunni brothers
in Iraq that we are brothers and the occupier shall not divide us. They are
welcome and we are ready to cooperate with them in all fields. This is my hand
I stretch out to them."
This followed a move a few days prior where Shia leaders from Sadr City in
eastern Baghdad met with Sunni tribal heads from western Iraq. Both sides promised
to work together for national reconciliation and against extremism.
However, most Sunnis do not believe reconciliation is part of Sadr's agenda
"The Americans will arrest the Sunni young men only and clear the way
for the Mahdi army to work their electric drills on people's bodies," 35-year-old
Khalid Aziz told IPS. Aziz claimed he is a member of the Iraqi resistance.
"It is all planned by the Americans who now want the Kurds to be involved
in the sectarian fighting they engineered," he added.
Many analysts in Baghdad believe the U.S. military is attempting to involve
the Kurds in the escalating conflict by sending armed groups and death squads
of other sects or ethnicities to engage the Kurdish forces in Baghdad in order
to drag them into the conflict.
However, the Kurds are reportedly attempting to not take sides and to remain
neutral in the sectarian conflict, although most of them are Sunnis.
IPS sources in Baghdad believe that bringing the Kurds into Baghdad in itself
is the beginning of their participation in the sectarian violence, especially
when they are attacked by Shi'ite militias on occasion.
Others believe that the divide and conquer strategy by the U.S. military and
U.S.-backed Iraqi politicians is being implemented across much of Baghdad.
"The western half of Baghdad that holds the name of al-Karkh is inhabited
by a majority of Sunni Arabs," Mohammad Shakir, a historian from the Dora
region of Baghdad, told IPS. "But there are also a variety of Kurds and
Shi'ite Arabs there, as is the case in most parts of Iraq where sects lived together
in relative peace for centuries. This sectarian fighting was ignited by Iraqi
politicians who came with the U.S. occupation to dominate power in Iraq."
Kassim Awadi, an Iraqi political analyst in Baghdad, told IPS: "Although
not likely to take place in the near future, the conflict between Kurds and
the Shia fighters who are conducting an Iranian agenda could spread."
"It seems to me that no sect will keep away from the civil war and it
is not in the interest of either the U.S. occupation or Iran that any part of
Iraq would stay stable," Awadi explained in an interview at his office.
"The story of the fighting between Kurdish units and [Mahdi army] police
units is not a strange one as the agendas for each party are completely different
and the conflicts are definitely going to take place sooner or later if [Prime
Minister Nouri] al-Maliki's government is to stay in power."
Former Iraqi army general Ahmed Khidir told IPS that he believes the violence
in Baghdad is now permanent because occupation forces lost control long ago
and are now completely reliant on various militias.
"The U.S. Army and the U.S. media are full of lies concerning being impartial,
and the truth is that the Americans are working together with many armed groups
who conduct massive killings," Khidir said. "One can clearly see the
mass destruction policy towards Sunni areas while military operations against
Shi'ite death squads are [restrained] and largely impotent."
(Inter Press Service)