BAGHDAD — The tough terms dictated by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in the newly completed U.S.-Iraqi status of forces agreement marked a tactical concession in a domestic Iraqi battle for power that remains far from resolved.
Maliki’s homegrown antagonist is the Tayyera al Sadrieen, the Iraqi religious-nationalist movement led by Moqtada al Sadr that has resisted the U.S. occupation militarily and politically since 2003.
It was the constant threat of uprising and the Sadrieen demand for nothing short of immediate pullout of the United States that forced Maliki to demand heavy concessions from the United States, which eventually signed an agreement that looked little like the initial proposal. The Sadrists have long pushed for an agreement that would set a date for the removal or U.S. troops and ensure that none remained.
It is unlikely Maliki could survive if he had come back with anything less. He has fought the militia with the aid of the U.S. military, walking a fine line between allying with the U.S. and trying to avoid looking like a tool of foreign parties.
But Maliki remains on a collision course with the Sadrists as he prepares to participate in January's provincial elections. A clear line will be drawn between those who support Iraqi parties that have allied with the United States and those who have opposed the occupation since the beginning.
The Tayyera al Sadrieen and the militia that is allied with it, the Jeish al Mehdi, have been buoyed in the past four years by the populism of the movement's leaders and by programs to provide aid and security to some of the most marginalized Iraqis during a period when the Iraqi government has been unable to do so.
Their critics accuse them of being a sectarian gang. Their supporters see them as ardent nationalists and champions of the long-oppressed Shiite underclass that makes up the majority of Iraq’s population.
In 2006, the Mehdi poured out of Sadr City, a slum in north Baghdad that had been their stronghold, and took over wide parts of the city. Other branches of the party's militia controlled or battled for control of southern Iraq, including the oil hub of Basra.
The militia has now largely gone to ground after a series of Iraqi army operations against it backed up by the U.S. military. But even though the Iraqi army now has as many as 3,500 soldiers in Sadr City, many residents here still fear the militia, most of whose leadership fled before the army entered, will return.
Under terms negotiated with the militia, U.S. troops remain south of a three-mile-long wall it constructed to bisect Sadr City. Militiamen put up heavy resistance in April and May as the wall was installed, and U.S. armored vehicles and airpower were integral to the operation. Even now, the Iraqi army commanders acknowledge they are dependent on the United States for resupply and air support. A cease-fire has largely held since the Iraqi troops arrived but the army's capability to stand alone against the militia remains untested.
"Now we are waiting for the cease-fire to stop so we can show the Iraqi army what we will do to them," said Ali, a 21-year-old member of the militia who showed off IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and said that most of the group's heavy weaponry had been moved or well-hidden before the Iraqi army arrived.
The Iraqi Army has taken up positions on Shwader Street, where thousands of Sadrists pray outdoors each Friday. On a recent Friday, men from the Sadr office linked arms to prevent young men from confronting the army. The presence of the army at Friday prayers has heavy overtones of the previous government, which forbade such large gatherings entirely.
Keeping young men like Ali in check might be Sadr's greatest challenge as he tries to maintain a cease-fire ahead of the provincial elections scheduled for January.
Tayyera Sadrieen's spokesman, Saleh al Obaidi, said that the Iraqi government is using the agreement to allow the Iraqi army and the U.S. military to arrest criminal elements of the militia to attack the Sadrieen as a whole.
Al Obaidy said that Friday prayers have been shut down at Sadrist mosques across the south and that as many as 10,000 Sadrists are in U.S. and Iraqi custody.
The U.S. military and government claims Iran heavily supports the militia, a charge al Obaidy said is exaggerated.
"We have the right to cooperate with anyone who can help us here and there, including the Iranians. But we are not the followers of the Iranian decision," he said. "Our agenda is working against the occupation."
(David Enders reported from Iraq on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)