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January 26, 2007

And Mahdi Army Makes Three Fronts in Iraq

by Gareth Porter

George W. Bush's State of the Union address appears to confirm other recent indications that the president is not merely sending more troops to Iraq to do more of the same, but has adopted a new strategy of fighting all three major Iraqi Arab political-military forces simultaneously.

Bush hinted strongly that he has decided to make Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army a major military target of the increased US troop presence in Baghdad, in addition to continuing to wage war against both al-Qaeda and its Sunni extremist allies, on one hand, and the non-jihadist Sunni resistance, on the other.

Two weeks before the Jan. 23 State of the Union speech, Lt.-Gen. Raymond Odierno, the number two US commander in Iraq, told reporters he wanted to use most of the additional 20,000 troops to launch a new military push against both Sunni and Shi’ite militias in Baghdad.

The new policy appears to have been prompted by both the need to demonstrate to the US public that the administration is doing something different and to use force against a presumed ally of Iran in the region. But it means that the United States is now planning to fight what is in essence a three-front war without any reliable Iraqi Arab ally. Only the Kurds can be counted on to cooperate with the US military in such a war, because of their reliance on US support for their aspirations for quasi-independence.

In the speech, Bush suggested that what he called "Shia extremists backed by Iran" were now an enemy equal in importance to al-Qaeda. He presented the "nightmare scenario" of the Iraqi government being "overrun by extremists on all sides" if US troops were to "step back before Baghdad is secure". That would be followed, Bush said, by an "epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaeda and supporters of the old regime..."

Bush referred indirectly to the administration's new readiness to take on the Mahdi army when he insisted that Iraqi leaders now have to "lift needless restrictions on Iraqi and Coalition forces, so these troops can achieve their mission of bringing security to all of the people of Baghdad." That was a reference to an agreement that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government reached with Sadr's organization last year that prohibited US troops from going into Sadr City, the Baghdad base of Sadr's political-military organization.

One veteran military expert on Iraq, retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor, told Inter Press Service that Bush's new policy is a "war against all" in Iraq and called it "a blunder of Hitlerian proportions".

Macgregor likened the policy of fighting all three Iraqi anti-occupation forces at once to Adolf Hitler's insistence on continuing a two-front war against the Soviet Union and the Western powers during World War II, which is widely regarded as having ensured the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Macgregor is no stranger to military planning in Iraq. He led combat troops in destroying a brigade of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard troops in the most significant tank battle of Desert Storm in February 1991 and prepared a proposal for a limited duration attack on Baghdad at the request of a personal representative of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in autumn 2001.

"It is ideology pushing violence to extremes," Macgregor says of the latest turn in Bush's Iraq policy. "They are trying to reverse the damage they have already done to themselves by having built up a Shi’ite state and army. But it is too late and it is bound to be counterproductive."

US forces defeated the 2000-strong Mahdi Army in Najaf in August 2004. Since then, however, Sadr has emerged as the most popular and powerful figure in Baghdad and the Shi’ite South, muscling aside the previously dominant Badr Organization. The Mahdi army is now believed to be many times larger than it was in 2004, and it has significant support within the Iraqi security forces.

US officers in Baghdad were telling reporters last September that they opposed doing battle with the Shi’ite militia. Col. Joseph DiSalvo, commander of the US 3rd Infantry Division in eastern Baghdad, told Tom Lasseter of McClatchy News Service in December that it would be all but impossible for the US military to defeat the Mahdi Army. "You'd have to have more manpower than is feasible," said DiSalvo.

The well-informed CNN Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware has just reiterated that warning about taking on the Mahdi Army. On Wolf Blitzer's The Situation Room Jan. 24, he said US troops can no longer crush the Mahdi Army. That army, Ware observed, "is much more than just a force, it's a movement. And it has mobilized the great disenfranchised, impoverished Shia population." The Sadrist "genie is out of the bottle", he warned, and "it can't be put back in".

As a result of the agreement between Maliki's government and Sadr's organization, the massive security operations in Baghdad last year essentially targeted Sunni insurgents based in Sunni neighborhoods, passing over Sadr City and other areas controlled by the Shi’ites. The Bush administration's policy on Shi’ite militias was limited to pressing Iraqi officials – especially Prime Minister Maliki – to act against his main source of political support. In effect the Bush administration was tacitly aligning itself with a Shi’ite-dominated regime that was dependent on pro-Iranian political-military groups against the Sunni resistance.

Bush strongly implied in his State of the Union message, however, that the administration can no longer count on the Shi’ite Iraqi government and army as allies in a new war against Shi’ite militias. Significantly, Bush did not even mention the prime minister by name in the speech.

In the weeks before the speech, Maliki was reported to have resisted targeting Shi’ite sectarian militias in Baghdad and to have opposed bringing US troops into central Baghdad. He was said to have proposed last November that Shi’ite forces take care of security within the city, while US troops patrol the perimeter.

A little over a week before the State of the Union address, New York Times reporter John Burns quoted an unnamed US military official, who had been involved in negotiations with the Iraqi government over security operations, as saying, "We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem. We are being played like a pawn."

Also missing from Bush's speech was the administration's past claim that the Iraqi army stands above sectarian interests. That sectarian Shi’ite character of key army units in the Baghdad area has been increasingly revealed in recent press reports.

An article by reporter Nancy Trejos in the Washington Post, Jan. 13, described the scene as Shi’ite soldiers, who belong to the Iraqi army's 6th Division which is responsible for security in central and south Baghdad, celebrated the 86th anniversary of the creation of the army. They shouted "Moqtada! Moqtada!" – the openly anti-US Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – in the same breath as the five major historical figures of the Shi’ite faith. The Iraqi interpreter for the US advisers to the unit remarked, "Sounds like the Mahdi militia is in the tent."

The decision to simultaneously fight all three major anti-occupation forces stems from the administration's failure to reach a settlement with major Sunni armed resistance organizations, even though they have turned against al-Qaeda. This effectively aligned the United States with one side in the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian conflict, and encouraged the Shi’ite leadership to view Sunnis as the enemy. Instead of reversing that policy decision, Bush is now adding another enemy to the list, despite the fact that the Mahdi army is also violently opposed to al-Qaeda.


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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