US-Shi’ite Struggle Could Spin Out of Control

The George W. Bush administration has embarked on a new effort to pressure Iraq’s militant Shi’ite party leaders to give up their control over internal security affairs that could lead the Shi’ites to reconsider their reliance on U.S. troops.

The looming confrontation is the result of U.S. concerns about the takeover of the Interior Ministry by Shi’ites with close ties to Iran, as well as the impact of officially sanctioned sectarian violence against Sunnis who support the insurgency. The Shi’ite leaders, however, appear determined to hold onto the state’s organs of repression as a guarantee against restoration of a Ba’athist regime.

The new turn in U.S. policy came in mid-November, when the administration decided to confront Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari publicly over the torture houses being run by Shi’ite officials in the Ministry of Interior at various locations in Baghdad.

The decision was not the result of a new revelation, because the U.S military command and U.S. embassy had known about such torture houses for months, from reporting by U.S. military officers.

U.S. Army doctor Maj. R. John Stukey told the Christian Science Monitor that he and U.S. military police had visited Interior Ministry detention facilities and had reported evidence of torture and other mistreatment at those facilities up through the chain of command before he left Baghdad in June. Washington had nevertheless remained silent about the issue.

However, the U.S. military raided an Interior Ministry’s detention center in the Baghdad suburb of Jadriya on Nov. 13, whereupon the U.S. embassy and U.S. command issued an unusual joint statement calling the torture center "totally unacceptable."

The embassy then used the torture house revelation to issue a public demand that the militant Shi’ite parties give up their power over the key state security organs. On Nov. 17, the embassy said, "There must not be militia or sectarian control or direction of Iraqi Security Forces, facilities, or ministries."

Shi’ite leaders viewed these U.S. moves as part of an effort to reduce the majority controlled by the Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) in the parliament and to increase the vote for former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite and former Ba’athist who has been a longtime collaborator with the Central Intelligence Agency.

As early as August, Prime Minister Jaafari and other leaders of the main Shi’ite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), had passed the word to their party members that the United States was trying to paralyze the government in order to bring Allawi back to power in the December elections.

When Allawi was interim prime minister in 2004-2005, he battled with militant Shi’ite party leaders over their push for radical de-Ba’athification and secret Iranian financing of SCIRI and Dawa candidates and the Iranian-trained Badr paramilitary units. Before last January’s elections, Allawi’s defense minister, Hazim al-Shaalan, publicly referred to the Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance slate as the "Iranian list."

The administration shared Allawi’s views on Iranian covert involvement in Iraqi politics but chose not to comment explicitly about it in public, sparing the new Shi’ite government embarrassment. Referring to Iran-Iraq relations last May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deplored "undue influence in the country through means that are not transparent."

Shortly before the recent parliamentary election, however, a U.S. official raised the issue explicitly on the record for the first time. Gen. George W. Casey complained in an interview with Knight-Ridder that the Iranians were "putting millions of dollars into the South to influence elections … funded primarily through their charity organizations and also Badr and some of these political parties."

Casey also referred to members of the Badr militia, who have entered the Interior Ministry units and the military in large numbers, as "their guys."

As the ballots were being cast on Dec. 15, Khalilzad indicated clearly that the United States wanted much broader power sharing in the next government. "Since no single party will have a majority, there will be a need for a very broad-based coalition," he said.

The embassy apparently hoped that the UIA would get fewer seats and Allawi more seats in the next parliament, increasing the pressure on the Shi’ite parties to negotiate a broad coalition government including both Allawi and Sunni representatives.

On Dec. 19, Khalilzad again signaled the U.S. determination to force the SCIRI leadership to yield control over the security organs of the government. "You can’t have someone who is regarded as sectarian as minister of the interior," he said.

The initial returns indicated a stronger showing for the UIA than the embassy had expected, and a weaker showing for Allawi than in the January elections. Allawi now appears to be eliminated from negotiations on high-level jobs in the administration.

Nevertheless, Khalilzad still has the Kurdish card to play. The UIA will need the support of the Kurds to form a new government, and the Kurds, whose military alliance with the United States is central to their political strategy, have now signaled that they will demand the inclusion of Sunni representatives in the government.

At a meeting with Khalilzad on Sunday, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said, "Without the Sunni parties there will be no consensus government … [and] without consensus government there will be no unity, there will be no peace." Kurdish negotiators are also likely to insist that the Shi’ites give up control over the Interior Ministry.

The last time the UIA was in the process of trying to form a government after the first parliamentary election in January, Kurdish demands played a major role in delaying the formation of the new government for three months. That Kurdish negotiating strategy dovetailed with U.S. efforts to exert pressure on Shi’ite leaders to allow former Ba’athist officers to keep leading positions in the military and Ministry of Interior.

When the SCIRI leadership refused to back down on control over the Interior Ministry, the Bush administration relented rather than create a political crisis. This time, however, the stakes are higher. If sectarian violence continues to worsen, the White House risks a collapse of political support at home. And the administration has already warned publicly that it will not accept a continuation of the status quo.

For Shi’ite party leaders, U.S. pressure to share state power with secular or Sunni representatives – especially on internal security – touches a raw nerve. They regard control over the organs of state repression as the key to maintaining a Shi’ite regime in power.

If Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and other SCIRI leaders feel they have to choose between relying on U.S. military protection and the security of their regime, they are likely to choose the latter. They could counter U.S. pressures by warning they will demand a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops if the United States continues to interfere in such politically sensitive matters.

That would not be an entirely idle threat. Last October, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was reported by associates to be considering such a demand. The implication of calling for a relatively rapid U.S. withdrawal would be that the Shi’ite leaders would turn to Iran for overt financial and even military assistance, in line with their fundamental foreign policy orientation.

The Bush administration’s strategy of pressure on Shi’ite leaders over the issue of control over state security organs thus has the potential to spin out of control and cause another policy disaster in Iraq and the entire Middle East.


Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.