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 of Interior.
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."