If politics makes strange bedfellows, then the relationship between Iran, the United States, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) 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 ceasefire 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 United States is playing.
In testimony before Congress a month ago, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, characterized the conflict in Iraq as a "proxy war" to stem Iranian influence.
Declarations by both the U.S. and Iraqi governments 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. Both governments defend the U.S.-backed Iraqi government excursions against Sadr 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 SIIC, which, as part of al-Maliki's ruling coalition also happens to be one of the closest U.S. partners.
The U.S. 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 that 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 United States 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 U.S. forces tends to overlook the fact that the parties in the coalition 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 U.S. denunciation of Iranian influence and U.S. 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 the Inter Press Service (IPS).
The two strongest parties in al-Maliki's coalition, his own Dawa Party and SIIC, have both been based out of Iran and are both Shia religious parties.
SIIC, 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 U.S. 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.
The SIIC had initially participated in the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi that 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 United States toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
Of its participation in a December 2002 INC conference, Ghassan Atiyyah, an Iraqi democracy activist, declared that "[SIIC], 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 SIIC the most powerful bloc in Iraq’s parliament. In December 2006, SIIC leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was invited to Washington to meet with President 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 U.S. air support and training—leading to accusations that the United States 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 United States was hoping to carry out in the summer. Last month’s offensive 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 United States and what Washington considers the nefarious influence of Iranians, the inherent contradictions of supporting SIIC run deep.
Of the various political disputes dividing Iraqis right now, a key one is that between nationalists who believe in a strong central government and those who want to subdivide the Iraqi map and society into a loosely federalized system.
It is Sadr and his followers, in fact, who—in spite of Iranian aid—represent the nationalist view, and they even push some policies that the United States 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."
The SIIC and Iran, on the other hand, 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 United States oppose the idea in favor of a strong central government.
One reason the United States opposes Sadr is his brutality, says White; the Mahdi militia was responsible for violent ethnic cleansing in many Shia dominated neighborhoods. Yet such violence has not been limited to Shia neighborhoods or delivered solely by the Sadrists.
A more significant reason for U.S. opposition to Sadr is his outspoken hostility toward the U.S. occupation, which also helps explain the support he has received from Iran. Sadr still refuses to deal with the U.S. 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."
Regardless of Sadr's opposition to the occupying U.S. forces, isolating him poses a threat to stability in Iraq because of his strong support among the Iraqi population. As Phebe Marr, an analyst with the U.S. Institute of Peace, told IPS, "Looking at the political spectrum, there are few alternatives. I just don't see much else on the scene."
The war, said Marr, has led to a brain-drain of Iraq’s professional class and an exodus of many secular moderates. As a result, secular and pro-Western political parties have all but disappeared; those who are left have thrown their support to the SIIC. Sadr, however, has been the voice of lower-class Iraqi Shia.
"U.S. 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."
Ali Gharib writes for the Inter Press Service and is a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).
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