Shiite Politics in Iraq: The Role of the Supreme Council

Posted in Iraq | 15-Nov-07 | Source: International Crisis Group

Muqtada al-Sadr

Baghdad/Istanbul/Brussels, 15 November 2007: The U.S. should take advantage of its privileged ties with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) to moderate the party’s behaviour and curb its sectarian practices rather than use it as an instrument to confront the Sadrists.

Shiite Politics in Iraq: The Role of the Supreme Council,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, outlines how the competition between its major Shiite movements – ISCI and Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi army – will help determine the country’s future. A protracted power struggle between the two is likely, marked perhaps by temporary alliances. The U.S. has fully backed ISCI in its rivalry with the Mahdi army, but this is a dangerous policy that will further deepen intra-Shiite divisions and ignores the Sadrists’ stronger mass base.

“The class struggle between the Shiite merchant elite represented by ISCI and the Shiite urban underclass represented by the Sadrists is more likely to shape Iraq’s future than the sectarian conflict”, says Joost Hiltermann, Crisis Group’s Deputy Middle East Program Director.

ISCI’s dual alliance with the U.S. and Iran has limited its support among Iraqis. The movement has sought to gain respectability by distancing itself from its Tehran patron and professing the importance of Iraqi unity but so far has not managed to shake off its past as an Iran-bred group of exiles with a sectarian agenda enforced by a potent militia. As long as the U.S. remains in Iraq, however, its alliance will help entrench the movement in the country’s governing, security and intelligence institutions. Its only true challenger remains the Mahdi army, which enjoys broad support among Shiite masses.

In order to make a significant contribution to the country’s rebuilding, ISCI should project itself further as a truly Iraqi party that supports the country’s unity in both its public positions and actual policy, abandoning its advocacy of a nine-governorate Shiite super region, which has provoked wide opposition. The movement should urge its representatives to forsake sectarian rhetoric and remove commanders who have engaged in illegal detentions, torture and death-squad activity. It should also support total transparency in hiring practices by government institutions. The U.S. should adopt a more even-handed approach between the two Shiite movements, while pressing ISCI to reform and abandon its sectarian policies.

“The U.S. can help ISCI move away from its controversial past”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East Program Director. “An ISCI fully transformed into a responsible, non-sectarian political party could make a significant contribution to Iraq’s rebuilding”.

Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) 32 (0) 2 541 1635
Giulia Previti (Washington) 1 202 785 1601

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The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation covering some 60 crisis-affected countries and territories across four continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.