The Battle for Southern Iraq

The Battle for Southern Iraq: Tufts E-News
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.10.07]
Political power in southern Iraq is at the heart of the conflict between the country’s two major Shi'ite political factions, according to The Fletcher School’s Vali Nasr.

Last month, clashes between rival Shi'ite factions in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala claimed the lives of more than 50 people and left hundreds injured. As the fighting between the Badr Corps and Mahdi Army heats up, one Tufts expert examined the source of the tension between the two groups.

"It's purely political," Vali Nasr (A'83, F'84), a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School, said on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." According to Nasr,"There is no deep ideological divide here. There are no disputes over a form of government [or] over a form of Shia theology that is driving them."

The Badr Corps, the military arm of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Mahdi Army, radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, have been fighting for years for control of southern Iraq, according to Nasr.

"The price on the table... [is] the control of various Shia cities, the trade routes, control of government services and resources," he told NPR.

Nasr, author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, explained that the two groups, which have the most powerful militias of all of the Shi'ite political factions, are clamoring for control of the holy Iraqi city of Karbala, the site of last month's violent clashes.

"The battle is over who controls this important shrine city, which is of enormous symbolic significance for Shias, but which also has very robust financial resources owing to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who visit the city on a yearly basis," he told NPR.

Each faction, Nasr pointed out, has outside support. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, both the Badr Corps and Muqtada al-Sadr "established ties" with Iran. Today, however, the Mahdi Army's connection to the country remains strong, while members of the Badr Corps have developed a relationship with the United States and the Iraqi security forces.

"[The Badr Corps] forces are better organized, are more centralized, have a very clear command and control structure, have been integrated now into Iraqi security forces, and have, on occasion, even been used by the United States in battle north and west of Baghdad," Nasr told NPR.

The professor pointed out that as the United States and Iran both strive to control the security efforts in the south, "we are also seeing a greater degree of tensions between their respective clients."

Nasr, who is also an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, sees only one way to end the battle between what he calls the "two Shia titans in the south."

"[They] are likely to fight one another until one of them comes out on the top as the most powerful Shia force in southern Iraq," he told NPR.

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