The standoff between al-Sadr's followers and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government has turned political but is unlikely to lead to any peaceful exit, since political disputes on stage are still deeply rooted and an all-out military showdown otherwise looms ahead.
The face-off began after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in late March ordered a major crackdown on "outlawed" militia in Basra, triggering fierce clashes between Sadr's Mahdi Army and Iraqi security forces. The clashes later spread to other cities in the Shiite south and to Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi security forces are still fighting militants in the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City.
Though sporadic firefights continued after a reportedly Iranian- brokered ceasefire in early April, the focal point of the deadlock turns political when PM Maliki threatened Sadr and his followers to disband his militia or will be barred from politics and the upcoming provincial elections.
Maliki, a Shiite, managed to line up the Sunni and Kurd blocs against the Sadrists. His cabinet later approved a draft law banning parties with militia from participating in the provincial elections and submitted it to the parliament where Maliki would probably enjoy a majority.
Maliki's moves brought surface the deep-rooted disputes between his Shiite ruling bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), and the Sadrists, who quit the government last April on Maliki's refusal to demand a timetable for foreign troops' withdrawal from Iraq.
Many Sadrists view Maliki's crackdown as a means to eliminate his Shiite rivals, mainly the Sadrists, as political forces in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq before the provincial elections, and to facilitate the political benchmarks set by the U.S. administration.
"What happened is nothing but political liquidation," Maha al- Douri, a female Shiite lawmaker from the Sadr movement told Xinhua recently.
"So that the government could pass controversial laws such as federalism, oil and gas laws and the long-term security agreement with the United States, which would guarantee long presence of the U.S. occupation troops in Iraq," she said.
All of these drafts are strongly opposed by the Sadrists, which hold 30 seats in the 275-seat parliament.
Moreover, disbanding militia seems unjust in most Sadrists' eyes. Most Iraqi parties maintain ties with armed groups. Many of these militia have been enrolled into the army or police while still maintain links with their political sponsors.