Shia leader Sadr backs Sunni protests in Iraq - Michael Jansen, Irish Times, 030113.

Shia leader Sadr backs Sunni protests in Iraq

MICHAEL JANSEN

Radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr has blamed prime minister Nuri al-Maliki for growing unrest in Iraq and expressed support for ongoing protests in majority Sunni provinces.

Speaking to followers in Najaf, a Shia shrine city, Mr Sadr, partner in the Shia fundamentalist coalition governing Iraq, repeatedly mentioned Mr Maliki’s efforts to consolidate his hold on power and crack down on opponents.

“The Iraqi spring is coming,” Mr Sadr said. “We are with the demonstrators and parliament must be with them, not against them. The legitimate demands of the demonstrators ... should be met.” He said he was willing to go to take part in protests in Anbar province, a stronghold of Sunni tribesmen alienated by Mr Maliki’s marginalisation of their community. While some analysts say these words appear to distance him from Mr Maliki ahead of spring provincial elections, it is more likely Mr Sadr is keen to encourage Sunnis to continue their protests by his show of support for the demonstrators who have called upon fellow Iraqis to join their rallies.

Death squads 

The current round is in response to the detention on charges of participating in death squads of bodyguards of finance minister Rafi al-Issawi, one of the few high-ranking Sunnis in the cabinet.

Last year the arrest following similar allegations of bodyguards of Sunni vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi prompted him to flee the country before he was tried and sentenced to death.

Mr Issawi accused Mr Maliki of trying to weaken rivals ahead of next spring’s parliamentary polls. The Iraqiya bloc, to which Mr Issawi belongs, threatened to withdraw from the government and urged a no confidence vote in Mr Maliki.

Mr Sadr has always been an uneasy member of the coalition formed by Mr Maliki following the 2010 election. The secular Iraqiya list led by Iyad Allawi won the most seats but Mr Maliki blocked his attempts to form a government and finally managed to cobble together a cabinet only after Mr Sadr became a partner.

Pressure exerted 

Mr Sadr joined after strong pressure was exerted on him by Tehran, which was determined Mr Maliki, Iran’s ally, should succeed himself as premier.

For a majority of Iraqis, Mr Maliki represents the Iran-nurtured Shia fundamentalists who returned to Iraq under US auspices after its invasion and occupation of the country.

By contrast, Mr Sadr (39) was born and raised in Iraq during the last years of the regime of Saddam Hussein and has projected himself as an independent Iraqi nationalist. A middle-ranking cleric, he is the son and son-in-law of grand ayatollahs Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr and Mohamed Baqr al-Sadr, both revered religious figures assassinated by the ousted regime.

Discord between Mr Maliki and the populace has intensified due to his inability to deliver electricity, water, jobs and security since 2006 when he first became prime minister. According to Iraq Body Count’s conservative estimates, last year’s death toll from bombings and shootings reached more than 5,000, topping the 4,136 of 2011.