If politics makes strange bedfellows, then the relationship between Iran, the United States and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq is the strangest ménage à trois in international relations today.
Violent Shia-on-Shia hostilities officially came to an end this week when a formal cease-fire was declared between government forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, but sporadic fighting still continues. And questions remain about the role that the US is playing.
In testimony before Congress a month ago, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US troops in Iraq, and the US ambassador Ryan Crocker characterized the conflict in Iraq as a "proxy war" to stem Iranian influence.
Declarations by both the US and al-Maliki’s government about Iranian sponsorship of Sadrist activities are often used to paint Iran as a destabilizing force in Iraq the meddling neighbor encouraging unrest to boost its own influence. US-backed Iraqi government excursions against Sadr are defended by citing unsubstantiated evidence of Iranian agents’ influence.
But this perspective has yet to be explained in terms of one of Iran’s closest allies in Iraq, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), who, as part of al-Maliki’s ruling coalition, also happen to be one of the US’s closest partners.
The US military says that it killed three militants in Baghdad’s Shia Sadr City slum on Sunday, alleging that the targets were splinter groups of the Mahdi Army who had spun out of Sadr’s control and were receiving training and weapons from Iran.
Last week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said it was clear that Tehran was supporting "militias that are operating outside the rule of law in Iraq." Many fear that the rhetoric is part of an effort to ratchet up tensions between the US and Iran.
But the constant barrage of criticism lobbed at Iran and the so-called "special groups" of Sadrists still fighting against the government and US forces tends to overlook the fact that the coalition of parties ruling Iraq are largely indebted to Iran for their very existence and continue to be closely connected with the Islamic Republic.
There seems to be no solid explanation about the double standard of US denunciation of Iranian influence and US support and aid to one of the strongest benefactors and allies of that influence the government coalition of al-Maliki.
"I’m not confident we know what the hell we’re doing when we’re making these actions," Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, told IPS.
The two strongest parties in al-Maliki’s coalition, his own Dawa Party and ISCI, have both been based out of Iran and are both Shia religious parties.
ISCI, formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was born in Iran and its fighters, the Badr Brigade militia, fought against Iraq in the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Badr Organization has been widely incorporated into the Iraqi security forces that receive US training and equipment.
While these groups were living in exile, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father was building a Shia movement within Iraq. The Sadrists are the only major Shia political block that can be properly considered an indigenous movement.
ISCI had initially participated in the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an exile group led by Ahmed Chalabi and which the neoconservative architects of the Iraq war had hoped to form into a government-in-exile that could swoop in and take control of Iraq after the US toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Of their participation in a December 2002 INC conference, Ghassan Atiyyah, an Iraqi democracy activist, declared that "[ISCI], for its part, was keen on the idea of a conference to prevent America dominating the Iraqi opposition and the future of Iraq."
After the collapse of Chalabi’s bid and the reign of the Coalition Provisional Authority, elections made ISCI the most powerful bloc in parliament. In December 2006, ISCI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was invited to Washington to meet with Pres. George W. Bush at the White House.
Hakim’s visit to Washington coincided with the withdrawal of the Sadrists once al-Maliki’s kingmakers from the ruling coalition. At Washington’s behest, Hakim threw his support to al-Maliki to allow him to hold a ruling coalition.
The recent fighting between Sadrists and the government has only strengthened that bond. Al-Maliki’s offensive in Basra and engagements in Sadr City have benefited from US air support and training leading to accusations that the US has picked sides in what is essentially an internal Shia political issue.
Soon after the aborted advance on Basra, Petraeus said that al-Maliki had prematurely moved on a plan that the US was hoping to carry out in the summer. The offensive of last month is widely viewed as an attempt by the ruling coalition to weaken Sadr ahead of this fall’s provincial elections, and though the attack Petraeus discussed will not happen, the plan to undertake it is notable.
But with the framing of the Iraq war as a struggle between the US and what the US considers the nefarious influence of Iranians, the inherent contradictions of supporting ISCI run deep.
It is Sadr and his followers, in fact, who in spite of Iranian aid remain true Iraqi nationalists and even push some policies that the U.S supports.
"Sadr took a lot of Iranian guns and ammunition and money, but Sadr clearly didn’t change," Middle East Institute scholar Wayne White told IPS. "Sadr clearly remains a nationalist."
ISCI and Iran, for example, support a Shia super-region in the south as part of a loosely federated Iraqi state. The homogenous super-region would likely facilitate Iranian influence. Both Sadr and the US oppose the idea in favor of a strong central government.
Some commentators, such as White, contend that the decision has to do with Sadr’s brutality, but the Badr organization is well known to have perpetrated violent ethnic cleansing as well. More generally, there are few actors in the Iraq conflict with clean hands.
Perhaps the most obvious answer lends clues to both Iranian support of and US animosity towards Sadr: he is the most outspoken opponent of the continuing US occupation. Sadr still refuses to deal with the US forces, vowing to only talk to Iraqis.
"He is the most anti-American of the militia leaders," said White, "and [leads] the only militia that has taken on the Americans militarily."
But Phebe Marr, an analyst with the US Institute of Peace, suggests that the explanation is even simpler than that. "Looking at the political spectrum, there are few alternatives," Marr told IPS. "I just don’t see much else on the scene."
Irrespective of Sadr’s opposition to occupying US forces, his isolation poses a threat to stability because of his strong support among many Iraqis.
"US nudging and pushing and manipulation becomes a very dicey affair because we don’t know everything that goes on behind closed doors," said White. "Even if [Sadr’s] organization itself is damaged very badly, that street power may still be there. And that’s going to be something difficult to deal with down the road."