A key objective of the
congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus this
week will be to defend the George W. Bush administration's
strategic political line that it is fighting an Iranian
"proxy war" in Iraq.
Based on preliminary indications of his spin on the
surprisingly effective armed resistance to the joint
U.S.-Iraqi Operation Knights Assault in Basra, Petraeus
will testify that it was caused by Iran through a
group of rogue militiamen who had split off from Moqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and came under Iranian control.
But the U.S. military's contention that "rogue
elements" have been carrying out the resistance
to coalition forces was refuted by Sadr himself in
an interview with al-Jazeera aired March 29 in which
he called for the release from U.S. detention of the
individual previously identified by Petraeus as the
head of the alleged breakaway faction.
The idea of Iranian-backed "rogue" Shi'ite
militia groups undermining Sadr's efforts to pursue
a more moderate course was introduced by the U.S.
military command in early 2007. These alleged Iranian
proxies were called "Special Groups"
a term that came not from Iran or the Shi'ites themselves
but from the Bush administration.
In April, after U.S. forces captured a former spokesman
for Sadr, Qais al-Khazali, Petraeus himself announced
that they had detained "the head of the secret
cell network, the extremist secret cells," he
said. Petraeus referred to it as "the Khazali
U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner
asserted in early July that Khazali's network was
a "Special Group," which was financed, armed,
and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps
and in some instances was even "directed"
by it. He said Iran was using a Hezbollah operative
to organize such groups to do its bidding in Iran.
The identification of Khazali as head of a "rogue"
faction was highly suspect, however. One of Sadr's
most trusted aides, Khazali had played a key role
in recruitment for the Mahdi Army in its formative
stage in 2003. He had gone underground in late 2004,
just after heavy fighting in which the Mahdi Army
had suffered heavy casualties and just as Sadr was
entering into a long period of retreat from military
In a March 30, 2007, press briefing, Maj. Gen. Michael
Barbero of the U.S. Joint Staff said both Khazali
and his brother were linked with the "Sadr organization."
A pro-war military blogger named Bill Roggio, who
maintains close relations with the U.S. command in
Baghdad, revealed in February 2007 that the real purpose
of the line about Iranian-controlled "Special
Groups" was to facilitate Petraeus' strategy
of dividing the Mahdi Army. "The 'rogue element'
narrative provides Mahdi Army fighters and commanders
an 'out,'" wrote
Roggio. A Mahdi Army unit commander could either
"choose to oppose the government and be targeted,"
he observed, "or step aside and join the political
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker's first comment on the
armed resistance in Basra in a March 26 interview
emphatically denied that the forces resisting the
Iraqi-U.S. operation represented Sadr's Mahdi Army.
"What you're seeing there is not a rising by
Jaish al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army]," Crocker insisted.
It was "a subset of Jaish al-Mahdi, the so called
'special groups' that really are basically just criminal
militias that are the difficulty here," according
An article by neoconservative military historian
Kimberly Kagan in the Wall Street Journal April
3 suggests, however, that Petraeus has slightly reformulated
the proxy war line in light of the obvious role played
by the Mahdi Army itself in limiting the advance of
the U.S.-Iraqi operation.
Kagan is married to Fred Kagan, one of the main author's
of Bush's surge policy, and is a full member of the
administration's team for conveying its political-military
thinking to the elite public. Her article evidently
reflects conversations with Petraeus and other officials
in Baghdad during the previous week.
Kagan, unlike Crocker on March 26, makes no effort
to deny that the Mahdi Army itself was fully involved
in the armed resistance in Basra, Baghdad, and elsewhere.
But she claims that it was "Special Groups"
not the Sadrists who "coordinated
the unrest and attacks of the regular Mahdi Army in
the capital and provinces."
Furthermore, Kagan describes the Mahdi Army as "a
reserve from which the Special Groups can and will
draw in crisis." And Sadr himself is dismissed
as ultimately a figurehead. "For all of his nationalist
rhetoric," writes Kagan, "Mr. Sadr is evidently
not in control of his movement
The new version of the proxy war narrative still
attributes ultimate control over the most powerful
Shi'ite political-military force in the country to
the shadowy "Special Groups."
But in an interview with al-Jazeera taped just before
the Basra operation was launched and broadcast on
March 29, Sadr demanded the release of Qais al-Khazali,
whom Petraeus had identified as the head of the alleged
"Special Group" that had broken away from
Sadr, from U.S. custody.
That confirms the earlier indications that Khazali
was never involved in a breakaway faction, and that
what the U.S. command refers to as "Iranian-backed
Special Groups" never existed.
The March 30 story by McClatchy's Leila Fadel on
the ending of the Basra crisis shows that Iran's real
strategy in Iraq bears no resemblance to the one portrayed
in the U.S. proxy war narrative. Fadel reported that
Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds
(Jerusalem) brigades of the IRGC, brokered a cease-fire
with Sadr after representatives of the Shi'ite parties
now supporting the Maliki government traveled secretly
to Qom, Iran March 29-30, to ask for his intervention.
Suleimani's role in reducing the violence in Basra
underlines the reality that Iranian power in Shi'ite
Iraq is based on its having worked with and provided
assistance to all the Shi'ite parties and factions.
Iran's determination to stay on good terms with all
the Shi'ite factions has made it the primary arbiter
of conflicts among them.
Iran has no reason to look for a small splinter group
to advance its interests when it already enjoys a
relationship of strategic cooperation with the government
The Mahdi Army has received training in both Lebanon
and in Iran and has undoubtedly used financial assistance
from Iran to procure weapons. But Sadr revealed in
his al-Jazeera interview that he had told Supreme
Leader Ali Khamenei on a trip to Iran that he did
not agree with the "political and military interests"
that Tehran had pursued in Iraq. That was an apparent
reference to Iran's pronounced tilt toward Sadr's
Shi'ite rivals who remain in power with joint U.S.-Iranian
Ironically, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
visited Iraq in early March, both Maliki and Supreme
Council chief Abdul Aziz al-Hakim publicly dissociated
themselves from the U.S. "proxy war" line,
insisting that Iran was restraining Sadr rather than
egging him on.
The interest of Bush administration in keeping the
proxy war line alive has nothing to do with Iraqi
realities, however. As a strategic weapon for justifying
the administration's policies toward both Iraq and
Iran, the theme of Iranian interference through "Special
Groups" is bound to be a central thread in the
testimony by Petraeus and Crocker this week.
(Inter Press Service)