Iraqi PM must find way to deal with insurgents

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2008, 12:00am

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in a bind. Powerful anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has told his government that unless it orders its soldiers and police to lay down arms against his militia, open war will be declared. Given the administration's weakness and the religious leader's popularity, paying heed to his call would seem politically wise; but to do so would also condone attacks by the insurgents on Iraqi and foreign troops, which hold the key to future peace and stability.

Security will be necessary if the next stage of Iraq's democratic evolution, provincial elections approved by the government last month for autumn, are to be free and fair. That was the reason that shortly after the passage of the electoral law, legislators ordered a crackdown on Mr Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army. Such a move is legally sound: militias are unlawful, no matter to whom they answer.

Disarming the group was necessary as Mr Sadr would surely have used it to push his electoral advantage. He helped put Mr Maliki in office, but the withdrawal from the government of his movement's ministers last spring indicated a self-centred political agenda.

An uneasy truce was forged between the government and the Mahdi Army. But when British troops pulled out of the country's second city, Basra, the centre of its oil wealth, Mr Sadr's militia seized control. Bloody warfare followed and the conflict moved to Mr Sadr's stronghold, Sadr City, in Baghdad. Hundreds of lives have since been lost in the standoff between his forces and Iraqi and US troops.

Iraq's ethnic and religious complexities mean that if a government is to rule with authority, it must be as inclusive as possible. With the absence of Mr Sadr's group and through the electoral process, the formerly ruling minority Muslim Sunni sect, Mr Maliki's government lacks that ability. The upcoming provincial polls and general elections expected next year will give the cleric a legitimate way to gain power.

As distasteful as it may seem, Mr Maliki has to find a way to work with Mr Sadr. If elections bring the militia leader into power, he must also do his utmost to work with his opponents. Iraq's future lies in inclusiveness and consensus, not building power bases.