AMMAN, Jordan, July 12 (UPI) -- Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his forces are vital to Iraq's stability and must be engaged to avoid an all out civil war in the country, a new report says.
Dismissed as a radical firebrand behind some of the sectarian violence that threatens to tear Iraq apart, Sadr must be "recognized as a serious political actor" since "he has become the authentic spokesman for a significant portion of traditionally disenfranchised Iraqis," according to a report released Tuesday by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
Sadr led his 10,000-strong Mahdi Army in a deadly 2004 showdown against U.S. troops following Saddam Hussein's ouster, but has since maintained calls for national unity and largely kept his forces in check, even after a series of vicious attacks against Shiite civilians, the report notes.
However civil strife has surged after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite holy shrine in Samarra and some of Sadr's followers are said to have indiscriminately attacked Sunni Muslims.
Sectarian bloodshed kills some 30-50 people in Baghdad alone every day, and 150,000 people have been displaced since the Samarra bombing, which the Iraqi government has blamed on al-Qaida militants.
"Becoming a responsible leader is now (Sadr's) principle challenge," said Robert Malley, Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa program director. "Should he fail to take it on, he will partly be guilty for two things he ardently claims he wishes to avoid: Iraq's fragmentation and... a civil war within Islam."
Sadr exercises "quasi-veto power" over key political figures in Iraq, including loyal Shiite politicians who won 32 of 275 parliamentary seats in the Dec. 2005 elections, according to the report.
Crisis Group recommends Sadr be supported in efforts to control his followers and endorsed as a legitimate Shiite leader. While demobilization of all militias must remain paramount, the Iraqi government should adopt a "gradualist" approach to the Mahdi Army and try to integrate members into national Baghdad security forces.