On September 19, 2008 Sheikh Oday Ali Abbas al-Ajrish, a Sadrist cleric in Basra was gunned down. The report did not say what his standing was within the Sadrist movement. His death follows a series of other killings of followers of Moqtada al-Sadr since the beginning of this year.
Southern Iraq and Baghdad have been the main venues for these targeted killings. For example, in January 2008, gunmen killed Sadrist Sheikh Yasser al-Mudhafar in the holy city of Najaf. On April 27, Mahdi Army commander Ali Ghalib was shot in a Sadrist neighborhood of Basra. In mid-July, Sheikh Saffaa al-Lami, the head of the Sadrist office in the New Baghdad neighborhood in the eastern section of capitol was also killed.
The most important assassination however, was of Riadh al-Nouri, one of the leaders in the Sadrist movement, and the head of its Najaf office on April 11. Nouri was married to one of Sadr’s sisters, and was a part time spokesman for him as well. Nouri was seen as a moderating force within the movement. He advocated against attacking the Iraqi security forces and rival Shiite factions, was opposed to Sadr pulling out his ministers from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s cabinet in 2007, and played a key role as a go-between with government. Nouri was also part of a faction that pushed for disarming the Mahdi Army, and turning it into more of a political and social movement. That didn’t mean that Nouri’s hands were clean however. In May 2004 he was arrested for connections with the assassination of Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Khoei, one of the leading Ayatollah’s in Iraq. In 2005 he was released.
Who is behind these hits is unknown. After Nouri was killed, Sadr blamed the Americans. Within the movement itself, conspiracy theories abound. Some blame rival Shiite factions such as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its Badr Brigade militia. Sheikh Lami for example, was killed just after he visited a police station to inquire about a Sadrist being held, which led followers to blame the Badr controlled local security forces. When it came to Nouri’s death, some thought it might be a revenge killing by the Khoei family. Still others blame rival factions within the Sadrist movement itself. Assassinations of leading Shiite figures have been common in the South since the U.S. invasion. Sadr has not been alone, as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has also had several of his clerics killed as well. Many times the Mahdi Army has been blamed. These all point to the unstable political situation in southern and central Iraq, and the inter-Shiite rivalries that are playing out there just below the surface. Some observers believe that when and if the provincial elections are held, they could be a safety valve for these simmering tensions, but that seems unlikely with all of the different rival factions and their deep history of animosity. Many see the struggle as a zero sum game, and will probably not be happy until the others are destroyed.
For more on the Sadrists see:
Sadr’s Leadership Or Lack Thereof
Sadr Struggles To Remain Relevant
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Yahya, Mazin, “Officials say gunmen kill cleric in southern Iraq,” Associated Press, 9/20/08
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