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Iraqi Shiite Party rises as Sadr falls

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"The Supreme Council and its allies are in the forefront now while the Sadrists are absent, but we can see signs already that the struggle among the Shiite religious parties will turn into a violent and armed one again, especially in the south," says Azer Naji, director of strategic and political studies at a research center at Basra University in southern Iraq.

"This may happen as we get close to the elections or even after the elections," he says.

Already Mr. Sadr's partisans and members of his Mahdi Army militia believe that ISCI and its affiliate party, the Badr Organization – previously known as the Badr Brigade and ISCI's armed wing – instigated the recent US-Iraqi military operations against the Mahdi Army in southern Iraq and Baghdad. They allege it was part of an ISCI/Badr plot to dismantle Sadr's organization ahead of elections.

On Friday, Sheikh Salim al-Darraji, an ISCI official based in Basra, was assassinated in a part of the city traditionally controlled by Sadrists. It comes one week after Basra's chief of military intelligence was killed in a predominantly Shiite part of eastern Baghdad.

The ultimate goal of ISCI and Badr is to consolidate their grip on southern Iraq and to create a nine-province Shiite region on par with the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north. This is a subject of great controversy among many Iraqis, including the Sadrists.

"We believe the elections are extremely important. We will run jointly with (ISCI). We both have a significant base of public support," says Hadi al-Ameri, Badr's leader and a senior member of the Iraqi parliament.

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