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Iraqi Shiites battered but not battling back

Shiites have maintained restraint after a week of bombings by suspected Sunni insurgents apparently seeking to provoke another cycle of violence and reverse recent security gains.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The anger in Baghdad's main Shiite district was raw and restless after twin car bombings took more than 50 lives earlier this week. But the true measure of the rage — in Iraqi terms — came the following morning: Morgues and streets were not full of Sunnis killed in payback violence.

A night-long spree of slayings by Shiite militias would have been the likely revenge exacted for such a blast during the height of Iraq's sectarian bloodshed.

Now, however, Shiites have so far maintained a resilience and restraint after a week of bombings by suspected Sunni insurgents apparently seeking to provoke another cycle of violence and reverse recent security gains.

"Let's not be dragged into these plots," Sadiq al-Esawi, an aide to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said during Friday prayers in Baghdad's Sadr City — which was hit by the double car bombings Wednesday.

But the lack of reprisals from Shiite gangs may have more to do with their diminished status and options than a collective decision to hold back.

An Iraqi offensive last year into Sadr City broke the control of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which used the huge Shiite slum as its Baghdad base and ran it as they wished with armed patrols and checkpoints. It's now in the hands of Iraqi security forces.

The Shiite-led government, meanwhile, has come under pressure from Washington to built stronger bonds with Sunni tribal leaders and open police and military posts to Sunni fighters who helped battle insurgents. This has blurred the once sharp divide between Sunnis and Shiites during near civil war in 2006-2007.

"There is a general agreement now that the Sunni community is not responsible for these attacks against Shiites," said Mustafa Alani, who follows regional affairs at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

"We might see individual acts of revenge," he added, "but not a return to an organized revenge along sectarian lines."

Deadly brazen attacks
Shiites have been the obvious target of three major bombings since an April 23 suicide blast hit a roadside restaurant crowed with pilgrims from Iran, killing at least 53 people. The next day, two female suicide bombers struck worshippers at Baghdad's most important Shiite shrine, leaving at least 71 dead.

The attacks also dealt an embarrassing blow to Iraqi political leaders already looking ahead to elections late this year.

Almost immediately after the Sadr City blasts, stunned residents denounced Iraqi forces for failing to protect them. Some called for the Mahdi Army's return as a more reliable defense against insurgents.

"They know the routes, the entrances, the streets better than the Iraqi army," said Abdul Hussein Jassim, 51, a construction worker. "We need to watch out for ourselves."

But there was a widespread feeling that the days of Mahdi Army swagger were likely over.

'Can we feel truly safe?'
Haider Kadoum, 25, a Sadr City shopkeeper pleaded: "The Mahdi Army is gone. We have the Iraqi army here now, but when can we feel truly safe?"

Iraqi security forces were taking no chances for Friday prayers. Roads leading to al-Sadr's political headquarters were blocked and no vehicles — not even bicycles or pushcarts — were allowed.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, meanwhile, urged parliament to hold a special session with the nation's security chiefs to discuss the recent spike in insurgent violence.

But patience among the former Mahdi Army patrons already could be wearing thin.

They claim the government's goal of political reconciliation with Sunnis has opened the door for insurgent sympathizers to infiltrate Iraq's security and intelligence services. The accusations were not backed by any further evidence, but it suggested the rising level of frustration.

The cleric al-Sadr, now operating from Iran, has remained quiet during the recent spate of attacks. Al-Sadr said last year he was disbanding most of the 60,000-strong militia, but would keep a small fighting unit.

American and Iraqi commanders also say a splinter Shiite faction known as Special Groups continues attacks on security forces and Sunni targets.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. David Perkins said intelligence units have not found evidence of widespread retribution killings by Shiites.

In the past, Shiite backlash to Sunni attacks built slowly. Shiites held back from major retaliation despite being hammered by attacks as the Sunni insurgency took root in 2004-2005. It took the February 2006 bombing of a revered golden-domed Shiite mosque in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, to open a full-scale sectarian confrontation.

Working to stop chaos
Some Sunni leaders already have made fresh appeals to reject the impulse for revenge.

The largest Sunni political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, issued a statement Thursday calling for "solidarity and unity" with Shiites and others against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent factions.

"The recent wave of attacks is led by the enemies of Iraq who only want to bring back chaos and tensions," the statement said.

Military analyst Anthony Cordesman, writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the most likely retaliation could come from "hard-line Shiite elements" such as breakaway Mahdi Army militiamen.

Michael Hanna, a regional affairs expert based in New York, said sustained insurgent attacks also could bring pressures on the cohesiveness of Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces, which include many former Shiite militiamen.

Hanna said he not believe that the Mahdi Army could regroup for "any organized approach to carry out retaliatory attacks." But he added: "There is still any opportunity for sectarian revenge killings."