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May 13, 2005

The Coming Shi'ite Showdown

by Gareth Porter

Even as the Bush administration was hailing the heroism of the Iraqi Shi'ite majority for going to the polls last Jan. 30, it was secretly preventing the new Shi'ite government from having full control over its own intelligence services. The reason, it has now been revealed, is that the administration fears that the Shi'ites will be too friendly with Iran.

A Knight Ridder report from Baghdad and Washington confirms that the CIA has refused to hand over control of Iraq's intelligence services to the newly elected government, because of worries that the new government's ties to Iran would be so close that intelligence secrets would be leaked to Tehran. According to Iraqi officials quoted in the report, immediately after the election, U.S. put sensitive intelligence files in U.S. military headquarters to keep them out of the hands of the newly elected Shi'ite-led government. The concern about a Shi'ite-led government's relations with Iran was confirmed by an administration official working on Iraq.

The U.S. effort to check Shi'ite power over the Iraqi security structure began even before the handing over of limited authority to an interim government last summer, but after the Bush administration knew it faced the prospect of a militant Shi'ite ticket winning the national elections. The CIA set up intelligence agencies in both the Defense and Interior ministries, according to the Knight Ridder report, each led by Kurdish officials considered politically reliable. These officers reported directly to the CIA's favorite Iraqi political figure, Iyad Allawi.

The most important move before the handover of power, however, was the formation by the CIA of a secret police organization (Mukhabarat) under a Sunni general (who collaborated with the CIA in a coup attempt in the mid-1990s) who staffed it primarily with Sunnis. This secret police force is still funded entirely by the CIA and reports directly to the CIA, not to any Iraqi government agency or official.

The intelligence agencies are not the only card that Washington has to play against the Shi'ites, however. The New York Times Magazine recently revealed the existence of a counterinsurgency force of "special police commandos" with 5,000 elite troops under a former Ba'athist Sunni general . The parallel with right-wing paramilitary forces supported by the United States in El Salvador has been noted. What has passed unnoticed, however, is that this force was created by the CIA advisers to the Ministry of Interior, which was the stronghold of Allawi and the former Ba'athist generals.

The commandos are only a counterinsurgency force, of course, but they are yet another means of countering the power of the Shi'ites within the government. The elected Shi'ite leaders are understandably extremely suspicious of the U.S. nurturing of a force that they doubt will have any loyalty to the new government. This behind-the-scenes struggle between the Bush administration and the Shi'ites helps to explain the extraordinary public warnings from Donald Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials to the new government last month not to purge Sunnis from the government's security services. Although the ostensible reason for the U.S. insistence that former Ba'athists must not be ousted from positions in these agencies is that their competence must not be lost, the administration also seeks to use them as a check on Shi'ite power.

Even the nearly three-month delay in naming a new cabinet after the Shi'ite electoral victory cannot be separated from the fierce maneuvering over a security structure, which is certainly intertwined with the effort by the Bush administration to retain a check on the Shi'ites. What one Western official called a "filibuster" by Kurds and the followers of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has been responsible for the delay. These are the very forces, of course, that had been working closely with the CIA for several months to build intelligence and paramilitary forces that could be used in the future as a form of pressure against the Shi'ites.

The Bush administration's effort to prevent the Shi'ites from coming to power in Iraq precedes the U.S. occupation of the country. In planning its postwar administration, the last thing the neocons wanted was an Iraqi government controlled by the major Shi'ite exile organizations, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its close Shi'ite ally, the Dawa Party. They knew that SCIRI was not only founded with Iranian patronage but that its military wing, the Badr Brigade, was created with assistance and training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

After Bush included Iran in his "axis of evil" in mid-2002, SCIRI had begun opposing a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. Tensions between SCIRI and the Bush administration surfaced at the London conference of opposition groups in December 2002. Bush's envoy to the conference, Zalmay Khalilzad, expressed reservations about giving a strong voice to an exile forum that the administration considered to be "too influenced by Iran."

A few weeks after the occupation began, Gen. Jay Garner, the first U.S. proconsul in Iraq, organized his own conferences for exiles and handpicked the participants. SCIRI and Dawa boycotted it and organized 20,000 Shi'ite supporters to protest outside the conference, chanting "Yes to freedom! Yes to Islam! No to America! No to Saddam!"

Garner decided to hold local elections in the Shi'ite stronghold of Najaf. Three weeks later, however, Paul Bremer arrived from Washington with orders to reverse Garner's decision and effectively replace Garner. As Bremer explained to the Washington Post, "In a postwar situation like this, if you start holding elections, the people who are rejectionists tend to win." Bremer and other officials made it clear that they were particularly concerned about Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, the SCIRI founder-leader.

That was the beginning of the U.S. effort to avoid democratic elections in Iraq in order to deny the Shi'ites political power. First they proposed a "partial election," with candidates limited to figures handpicked by the Americans. Then Bremer tried to impose his solution on the Governing Council of handpicked Iraqis. Bremer accepted democratic elections only in January 2004, after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gave the orders for a demonstration by as many as 100,000 Shi'ites in Baghdad, shouting "Yes, yes to elections! No, no to occupation!"

Iraq is the natural counterweight to Iran in the Middle East. For the Bush administration, the idea of a Shi'ite-controlled Iraqi government that is chummy with Iran is an intolerable threat to U.S. strategy in the region. But the Iraqi Shi'ite leaders are insisting on their right to have warm relations with Iran. Hadi al-Amerim, the commander of the Badr Brigade, the former military wing of the SCIRI and a member of the new parliament, told Knight Ridder that it was high time for the Bush administration to accept the long-standing friendship between the leaders of the new Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Iranian mullahs.

As the Shi'ites continue their determined march to consolidate political power in Iraq, another showdown with the Bush administration seems almost certain. We should not be surprised if the Shi'ites ultimately take their cause to the streets, as they did in deciding the last showdown with Washington over democratic elections.


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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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