Despite the U.S. military command's frequent
assertions that the primary threat to U.S. forces in Iraq comes from Iranian
meddling, its real problem is that Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army
is determined to end the occupation and is simply too big and too well entrenched
to be weakened by military force.
The U.S. command began trying to enter into a political dialogue with Sadr's
followers in early 2006 and now claims that such a dialogue has begun, according
to a Sept. 12 article by Ned Parker of the Los Angeles Times.
And Gen. David Petraeus hinted in his congressional testimony last month at
the need to negotiate a deal with the Sadrists. Petraeus said it is impossible
to "kill or capture" all the "Sadr militia" and likened
the problem to that of dealing with the Sunni insurgents who have now been allowed
to become local security forces in Sunni neighborhoods.
But the George W. Bush administration is not prepared to make peace with the
Mahdi army. Instead it believes it can somehow divide it if it applies military
pressure while wooing what it calls "moderates" in the Sadr camp.
Parker quoted an anonymous administration official last month as suggesting
that there were Sadrists "who we think we might be able to work with."
A U.S. commander in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, told Parker last month
that Sadrist representatives initiated indirect talks in late July, which were
followed by Sadr's announcement at the end of August of a six-month hiatus in
But the proposal Frank made to the Mahdi army at a meeting Sept. 3 with both
Sunni and Shi'ite community leaders suggests that Petraeus is on a short leash
in negotiating local peace agreements. Frank proposed that the Mahdi army cease
attacks for two weeks, and that the U.S. military would "consider reducing
their raids in the district."
That was an offer that might have been expected from a newly installed occupation
army rather than from one that has already admitted that it cannot prevail by
using force and is bound to become weaker in the near future.
The U.S. command intends to increase the military pressure on the Mahdi army.
Last week, Odierno announced that more military resources were being shifted
from fighting against al-Qaeda to operations against Shi'ite militiamen.
The idea of managing the Mahdi army problem by dividing it between "extremist"
and "moderate" elements was integrated into the original "surge"
strategy. Even before Petraeus took command in Baghdad last January, he and
his second in command, Gen. Ray Odierno, had already decided to avoid a full-fledged
military campaign against the Mahdi army.
Instead they adopted a strategy of trying to reach agreement with some of Sadr's
followers – perhaps including Sadr himself – while targeting selected elements
in the Mahdi army.
"There are some extreme elements, and we will go after them," Odierno
said at a Jan. 7, 2007, news conference.
The strategy of making deals with "moderates" while attacking the
"extreme elements" seemed to be given credibility when Sadr signaled
in early 2007 that he was ordering the Mahdi army to lie low and even to cooperate
with the new U.S. Baghdad security plan.
As Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post reported last May, the U.S.
command even released one of Sadr's aides, Salah al-Obaidi, from Camp Cropper
after five months in detention, in the belief that he was a "moderate"
who could help shift the balance within the Mahdi army against those determined
to carry out military resistance against U.S. forces.
But contrary to the self-serving assumptions of Petraeus and Odierno, Sadr
was avoiding a confrontation with U.S. forces because he believed that the occupation
had entered its final phase, in which the Bush administration would be forced
to negotiate a settlement prior to military withdrawal, and that he had only
to keep the Mahdi army intact to emerge victorious over his Shi'ite rivals associated
with the al-Hakim family.
Sadr aides told Raghavan that the Shi'ite cleric viewed the Democratic takeover
of Congress and the struggle over Iraq policy as evidence that the final phase
of the war had begun. His expression of willingness to cooperate with U.S. forces
was aimed at positioning himself to be the main Iraqi interlocutor for the United
States in the transition period.
Significantly, however, Sadr refused to deal with the Bush administration,
believing that the Democrats would take a less bellicose posture toward his
In any case, Sadr's hopes that the U.S. command might leave the Mahdi army
alone were dashed by the aggressiveness of U.S. sweeps in Sadr City and other
Sadr strongholds in Baghdad, which began in January even before the arrival
of additional troops. By mid-March, Sadr had already begun to backtrack on cooperation
with the U.S. occupation troops.
Even as Sadr was returning to open opposition to the U.S. military, the U.S.
command was pushing the line that the Mahdi army was "splintering"
and that attacks on U.S. troops were coming only from "rogue" Mahdi
A U.S. military official in Washington told the Associated Press in late March
that some Mahdi army figures were "breaking away to attempt a more conciliatory
approach to the Americans and the Iraqi government," while others were
"moving in a more extremist direction."
The key individual in the alleged "extremist" breakaway faction was
said to be Qais al-Khazali, who was Sadr's main spokesman in 2003 and 2004.
Khazali and his brother, who had just been captured a few days before, were
leaders of an Iraqi network which had apparently procured armor-piercing bombs
and other weapons for the Mahdi army.
In July, the U.S. military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, cited Khazali's
alleged testimony under interrogation as supporting the command's argument that
the Iranian Quds Force was creating a "Hezbollah-like" Shi'ite pro-Iranian
force to do its bidding in Iraq.
But Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy director for Regional Operations at the
Joint Staff in Washington, had obviously not been consulted about the Khazali
breakaway ploy. In a press briefing on March 30, Barbero said, "[W]e assess
that there are links between these brothers and Sadr's organization."
Bergner's portrayal of the Khazali organization as detached from Sadr's movement
was an example of how the U.S. command embraces interpretations that serve its
political-military objectives, even when they don't reflect its own intelligence
When the U.S. command carried out arrests of Mahdi army commanders or cell
leaders last spring and summer, they invariably referred to the targets as "rogue"
Mahdi army. In one such operation, U.S. and Iraqi troops captured the commander
of what were called a "high-level rogue Jaysh al-Mahdi commander"
of an "assassination cell" of more than 100 members.
But according to a New York Times report July 28, both the head of the
Sadr office in Baghdad and a Sadrist cleric preaching in nearby Kufa condemned
the raid and called for the release of the detainees, indicating that they are
still part of the Mahdi army.
The "rogue" designation apparently referred to their resistance to
the occupation, not to their relationship to the Mahdi army command.
The U.S. command's line that Iran is using Hezbollah operatives to train Shi'ite
militias that had broken away from Sadr was further discredited when Sadr admitted
in an interview with The Independent in August that his organization
has "formal links" with Hezbollah, has sent fighters to Lebanon for
training and would continue to do so.
(Inter Press Service)