In addition, the Sadrists’ vocal stance against the American presence and threats by al-Sadr himself to revive his Mahdi Army, a radical militia sympathetic to Iran, seem to have induced more parliamentarians into opposing any extension of the withdrawal deadline, much to al-Maliki’s chagrin. Thus, the false offensive served as a reminder to al-Sadr that al-Maliki could use the military against him. In 2008, the “Charge of the Knights” operation organized by al-Maliki forced al-Sadr to disband his militia in Basra and negotiate a ceasefire with the Iraqi government.
In the end, al-Maliki’s initiative in July achieved its aim, as al-Sadr backed off from his rhetoric, saying he would not bring back the Mahdi Army even if U.S. forces stay. However, al-Sadr is now warning of the prospect of “war” if American troops remain in Iraq.
Finally, it is evident that Sunni-Shi’a sectarian tensions are being exacerbated by developments in the Arab Spring. In particular, Iraq’s Shi’a politicians have been outspoken in their support for the protestors in Bahrain, yet they are standing firm with Assad’s regime in Syria as it continues its crackdown on the uprising.
This is so despite the fact that the Syrian unrest is in Iraq’s security and economic interests. After all, Syria has facilitated the infiltration of foreign Sunni insurgents into Iraq who have killed many Iraqis. Moreover, as a result of instability in Syria, Iraqi refugees are returning home from that country where they fled during the Iraqi fighting.
Events in Bahrain, on the other hand, have no bearing on Iraq’s domestic and strategic concerns. Unsurprisingly, Iraqi Sunni politicians have taken the opposite stance on entirely sectarian grounds. Thus, they sympathize with Bahrain’s monarchy while backing the Syrian protestors. Increases in Sunni-Shi’a tensions could bring a return to violence from both sides.
In short, amid performance problems for the Iraqi security forces, personal power struggles among politicians, and growing sectarianism, the recent wave of insurgent attacks could be only the start of more struggles during the coming months, regardless of how many U.S. troops remain in Iraq.