Is US Planning More Attacks on Shi’ite Militias?

Last week’s attack by U.S.-led Iraqi paramilitary forces on a building that Shi’ite leaders claim was a mosque may have marked the beginning of a new stage of U.S. policy in which Iraqi forces are used to carry out military operations against Shi’ite militia forces – especially those loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr.

However, such a strategy risks uniting the Shi’ites against the U.S. military occupation and leading to a showdown that makes that presence politically untenable.

Just before the operation against the mosque complex, which the U.S. military referred to as a "terrorist base," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad hinted broadly that the United States would soon target the Shi’ite militias for the brunt of its operations.

"The militias haven’t been focused on decisively yet," he declared, adding that militias were now killing more Iraqis than the insurgents. Khalilzad further pinpointed the Mahdi Army and its ties to Iran as the primary and most immediate U.S. concern.

Most of those killed in the raid by U.S. Special Forces and their Iraqi counterparts apparently worked for Moqtada al-Sadr’s political-military organization, the Mahdi Army. After the raid, moreover, the State Department spokesman said the incident underlined the need to free Iraq’s security forces from sectarian control.

Militiamen loyal to al-Sadr have been implicated in many of the reprisal killings against Sunnis since the bombing of the Shi’ite mosque in Samarra last month. Al-Sadr’s forces may also be targeted, however, because he has closer links to Iran than any other Shi’ite political figure. On a visit to Tehran last January, al-Sadr declared, "The forces of Mahdi Army defend the interests of Iraq and Islamic countries. If neighboring Islamic countries, including Iran, become the target of attacks, we will support them." In a move evidently aimed at building popular support for a possible confrontation with the United States, ministers representing all three Shi’ite parties in the government united in denouncing the raid as a massacre. Even more significant, however, the "Shi’ite Islamist Alliance" has demanded the restoration of control over security matters to the Iraqi government.

That demand throws the spotlight on the continued de facto U.S. control over certain Iraqi military and military forces, in contrast to the formal independence of the Iraqi government, army, and police. The Shi’ite leadership is now afraid that the United States plans to use that control to intervene in the sectarian political crisis of the country to reduce the power of the Shi’ites in the government.

The spokesman for the Dawa Party, Kuthair al-Khuzzaie, referred directly to that possibility, warning the U.S. in a March 26 press conference that "a battle with the calm giant Shi’ite means they are falling into a dangerous swamp."

The Shi’ites have shown no willingness to give up their control over sectarian Shi’ite militias, which they regard as their only guarantee against future moves to unseat a Shi’ite-dominated government.

According to Joost Hilterman of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, Shi’ite leaders are now talking about the "second betrayal" of the Shi’ite cause by the United States. The first betrayal was the U.S. failure to intervene to support a Shi’ite uprising against the Saddam Hussein regime at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, which resulted in the killing of thousands of Shi’ite civilians.

In a showdown between military forces of the two sides, the militant Shi’ites would have a considerable advantage in numbers, but the U.S. would be able to deploy better-trained and equipped Iraqi forces. U.S. combat forces would be ready to intervene on their side.

The main forces available to the Shi’ites will be the militiamen loyal to al-Sadr, whose population base in the sprawling Baghdad slum called Sadr City includes at least a million Shi’ites. In 2004, U.S. intelligence estimated the Mahdi Army at 10,000 fighters, but the actual number is almost certainly several times larger than that, given al-Sadr’s ability to recruit followers during 2005.

The Shi’ites can also count on some 10,000 militiamen in the Badr Organization, formerly known as the Badr Brigade, established and trained by Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Iran and still said to be financed by Iran. Many of the Badr militiamen were brought into police units run by the Interior Ministry last year, and the Interior Minister Bayan Jabr continues to support them.

In addition, the all-Shi’ite 1st Brigade, with 4,000 men, which was given control over all of Baghdad west of the Tigris River last year, is likely to side with the Shi’ites against its U.S.-backed rivals in any showdown. Despite its 250 U.S. advisers, the 1st Brigade was reported by Knight Ridder’s Tom Lasseter last October to be taking its overall direction from local Shi’ite clerics – not from the Ministry of Defense.

On their side, the United States can use a number of units responsive to U.S. direction in a crackdown against Shi’ite militia. The spearpoint of the new U.S. campaign against Shi’ite militias will be the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), a brigade of 1,300 troops under the command of Kurdish officers. It is believed to consist of mostly Kurdish troops.

Nominally under the Ministry of Defense, the ISOF works closely with U.S. Special Forces and has no loyalty to any Iraqi central government. It includes two battalion-sized operational units, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Task Force and the Iraqi Commandos. It was the counter-terrorism unit that carried out the raid with U.S. Special Forces last week.

The U.S. embassy began preparing paramilitary forces it could count on to support U.S. geopolitical interests in the broader conflict with Iran during the Iyad Allawi regime, in which the Interior Ministry was filled with old Central Intelligence Agency collaborators.

CIA advisers to the Interior Ministry created a force of "special police commandos" consisting of 5,000 elite troops commanded by a former Ba’athist general, Adnan Thabit. Many of the commandos recruited for the unit were former Hussein security personnel themselves, partly because of their experience in counterinsurgency, and partly because they would be strongly anti-Iran. While still under the Interior Ministry in theory, these commandos will follow the lead of the U.S.-supported Gen. Thabit.

The move against Shi’ite militia units appears to be the result of a new fear in the White House of impending disaster in Iraq. Despite soothing talk by U.S. commanders earlier in March that the threat of civil war had passed, Brig. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, deputy chief of operations for the U.S. Central Command, revealed the command’s pessimistic view out civil war when he told Associated Press, "Whenever it happens, it’s Iraq’s problem and Iraqis have to take care of it."

The White House may also have begun to doubt that the political negotiations on a new government will do much to reverse that trend. The idea of a more aggressive policy toward the Shi’ite militias appeals to the desire to do something dramatic to regain control of the situation.

A strategy of trying to wrap up the Mahdi Army, however, would represent another major U.S. miscalculation. The militant Shi’ites hold the high cards in any showdown: the ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of followers in the streets of Baghdad. The most likely result of such a campaign would be a decisive – and final – political defeat for the occupation.

(Inter Press Service)

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.