A few days ago, there were two suspiciously coordinated statements emerging from Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr made open-war threats followed immediately by a similar threat from al-Qaeda.
As they say, there is usually no smoke without fire.
Respected Iraqi writer and lawyer Suleiman Hakim (a prominent writer regularly published on the leading Iraqi politics and culture website Kitabat ) reported on April 11 — more than a week before Sadr and Abu Ayyub made their threats — about serious negotiations taking place between Sadr’s movement and a leader of the Islamic army group.
The meetings, Hakim believes, are taking place in Syria and Lebanon and are sponsored by a special Syrian security apparatus specialized in Iraqi affairs.
Sheik Zergani [Sadr's representative in Lebanon] and Sadr’s representative in Syria met in the Lebanese capital last March with Mr. Khalil Jumeily [a leader of the Islamic army] and after preliminary discussions in which they exchanged their views about the situation in Iraq and their plans for overthrowing the existing order and reviewing the positions of domestic and regional allies, they decided to resume the discussions in Damascus so that once they reach specific agreements, one certain Syrian security apparatus in charge of Iraqi issues would witness and sponsor those agreements … the relationships between Sadr movement and the Islamic army are not outside the frame of the Iran-Syria alliance. And so these relationships are being restored after being severed in the aftermath of the holy shrines bombings in 2006 and the massacres committed by Mahdi army indiscriminately against Sunni Iraqis. The main requirement of the new agreement is that the Islamic army launch wide operations against American and government targets and to take control of cities and towns near the army’s strongholds, in addition to the provision of assistance and backup to the Mahdi army once Muqtada unfreezes the army and gives the green light for starting the battle against the authority of the Shia coalition. … [The objective is] to create a new situation on the ground that forces the American forces to negotiate a new formula for power and authority in Iraq
The fact that this story was written almost days before both al-Qaeda leaders sent in a wave of audio recordings and Muqtada threatened open war gives them increased credibility.
True, the idea of the Islamic army cooperating with Mahdi army sounds as peculiar as it always has. Not because of the sectarian difference, because the two groups did cooperate and sent reinforcements to each other back in 2004 during the battles of Fallujah and Najaf.
It’s because by considering a new joint venture with Sadr the Islamic army is making two huge mistakes. It’s true that the leaders of the group are likely not politically savvy and driven by emotion, but it still should be easy for them to understand that this would be a blunder.
First, by siding with Sadr they’d be obviously choosing a losing partner in the long run, and the bet on quick gains through a nationwide shock offensive is too much of a longshot stretch, with highly unpredictable outcome.
Second, and most important, is that former Sunni insurgent groups (the Islamic army being one of the most prominent), by turning against al-Qaeda, have already created for themselves better bargaining positions when it comes to negotiating the future distribution of power in the country with the government or the U.S.
It is close to impossible to truly gauge what the leaders of these groups are thinking because we still don’t have enough knowledge about the subtleties that underlie the relationships between the different factions within the Sunni insurgency in general, and the Islamic army in particular.
But we Iraqis need to stay alert, for something nasty might be brewing for us in Damascus.
Omar Fadhil is PJM Baghdad editor. His own blog is Iraq The Model.