By Dean Yates
BAGHDAD, June 16 (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s recent decisions show he is pursuing a twin strategy -- trying to regain control of his militia and avoiding confrontation with the government.
Sadr, an influential anti-American cleric in his 30s, has at times appeared on the verge of declaring war on security forces following crackdowns on his Mehdi Army militia in the southern city of Basra and in Baghdad.
But on Friday, Sadr said only a select group of his Mehdi Army would confront U.S. troops -- not Iraqi forces -- while the rest should focus on political and cultural work. That effectively disarms most of his unwieldy militia, which has tens of thousands of fighters.
Meanwhile, over the weekend, Sadr’s aides said the group’s political movement would not compete in provincial elections later this year under its own slate but join other groups and ask its followers to vote for those candidates.
That could allow the Sadrist bloc to skirt a draft election law that bans any party with a militia from competing and possibly avoid a row with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over the issue. Maliki, himself a Shi‘ite, has threatened to bar the movement from political life unless it disbanded the Mehdi Army.
"They are looking for alternatives to remain on the scene. And this is a very important point because there are real attempts by the government to marginalise the Sadrists," said Kadhum al-Muqdadi, an Iraqi political analyst.
While Sadr is rarely seen in public and is believed to spend most of his time in Shi‘ite Iran, he is never far from the news.
The cleric launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. He backed Maliki’s rise to power in 2006 but then split with him early last year when the prime minister refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
DILEMMA FOR CLERIC
Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group and an expert on Iraqi Shi‘ite politics, said Sadr’s move to form a small fighting unit illustrated the tough position he was in.
Sadr has come under enormous pressure from Mehdi Army commanders to respond forcefully to the Shi‘ite-led government’s offensives, which some see as an attempt to weaken the Sadrist movement ahead of the Oct. 1 local elections. Sadr would face a U.S. military onslaught if he ordered an uprising.
"He’s been looking for ways of both responding to this expectation within the movement ... and at the same time without declaring war," said Harling.
"He does not want all-out confrontation with the U.S. At the same time he can’t afford to do nothing."
In a further sign Sadr wants to avoid a major military confrontation, he has ordered his followers in the southern Shi‘ite city of Amara -- where Iraqi forces are preparing for another offensive -- not to take up arms.
Such a strategy stands in sharp contrast to the fierce resistance the Mehdi Army put up in Basra when Maliki launched an operation in the southern oil hub in late March. That touched off fighting in Baghdad that lasted seven weeks.
On the political front, the Sadr movement has been expected to make gains in local elections at the expense of Shi‘ite parties supporting Maliki, especially in the Shi‘ite south where the performance of local governments have been criticised.
Sadr’s aides have stressed the movement was not boycotting the polls, like it did with the last local elections in 2005.
"It could make sense to follow this sort of strategy to avoid any government obstruction on account of Mehdi Army activities," said Reidar Visser, editor of the Iraq-focused website www.historiae.org, referring to the decision not to run under the Sadrist movement name.
Harling said the Sadr movement had also been hurt by a backlash that followed Iraq’s near descent into civil war in 2006 and early 2007 when many gunmen professing loyalty to Sadr turned to crime, sullying the bloc’s reputation among Shi‘ites.
Running under its own slate could expose its weakness among voters, especially in the south, Harling said.
"It might be easier for them to promote other candidates and then try to reap the benefits," he said.
Luwaa Sumaisem, head of the Sadr bloc’s political committee, said the movement was responding to changing circumstances.
"We believe for example that it’s not necessary to take part in the coming elections under the (slate) of the Sadr movement. but we have the right to support others," he told Reuters.
"I don’t want to describe this is a manoeuvre, rather it’s a measure that reflects the current situation."
Sadr often keeps Iraqis guessing, but he does appear to be trying to position himself as a nationalist leader for when U.S. troops draw down significantly.
He derives much of his authority from his family. Sadr’s father, the respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was killed in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein.
"Moqtada’s ultimate aim may be to emerge as a hero of his father’s stature: An Iraqi cleric supported by his own political movement with a strong Iraqi nationalist orientation that can appeal to the Shi‘ite masses," said Visser.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Edited by Samia Nakhoul)