Despite the U.S. military command’s frequent assertions that the primary threat to U.S. forces in Iraq comes from Iranian meddling, its real problem is that Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army is determined to end the occupation and is simply too big and too well entrenched to be weakened by military force.
The U.S. command began trying to enter into a political dialogue with Sadr’s followers in early 2006 and now claims that such a dialogue has begun, according to a September 12 article by Ned Parker of the Los Angeles Times .
And Gen. David Petraeus hinted in his congressional testimony last month at the need to negotiate a deal with the "Sadrists." Petraeus said it is impossible to "kill or capture" all the "Sadr militia" and likened the problem to that of dealing with the Sunni insurgents who have now been allowed to become local security forces in Sunni neighborhoods.
But the George W. Bush administration is not prepared to make peace with the Mahdi Army. Instead it believes it can somehow divide it if it applies military pressure while wooing what it calls "moderates" in the Sadr camp. Parker quoted an anonymous administration official last month as suggesting that there were Sadrists "who we think we might be able to work with."
A U.S. commander in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, told Parker last month that Sadrist representatives initiated indirect talks in late July, which were followed by Sadr’s announcement at the end of August of a six-month hiatus in fighting.
But the proposal Frank made to the Mahdi Army at a September 3 meeting with both Sunni and Shiite community leaders suggests that Petraeus is on a short leash in negotiating local peace agreements. Frank proposed that the Mahdi Army cease attacks for two weeks, and that the U.S. military would "consider reducing their raids in the district."
That was an offer that might have been expected from a newly installed occupation army rather than from one that has already admitted that it cannot prevail by using force and is bound to become weaker in the near future.
The U.S. command intends to increase the military pressure on the Mahdi Army. Last week, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno announced that more military resources were being shifted from fighting al-Qaida to operations against Shiite militiamen.
The idea of managing the Mahdi Army problem by dividing it between "extremist" and "moderate" elements was integrated into the original "surge" strategy. Even before Petraeus took command in Baghdad last January, he and Odierno, his second in command, had already decided to avoid a full-fledged military campaign against the Mahdi Army.
Instead they adopted a strategy of trying to reach agreement with some of Sadr’s followers—perhaps including Sadr himself—while targeting selected elements in the Mahdi Army.
"There are some extreme elements, and we will go after them," Odierno said at a January 7, 2007 news conference.
The strategy of making deals with "moderates" while attacking the "extreme elements" seemed to be given credibility when Sadr signaled in early 2007 that he was ordering the Mahdi Army to lie low and even to cooperate with the new U.S. Baghdad security plan.
As Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post reported last May, the U.S. command even released one of Sadr’s aides, Salah al-Obaidi, from Camp Cropper after five months in detention, in the belief that he was a "moderate" who could help shift the balance within the Mahdi Army against those determined to carry out military resistance against U.S. forces.
But contrary to the self-serving assumptions of Petraeus and Odierno, Sadr was avoiding a confrontation with U.S. forces because he believed that the occupation had entered its final phase, in which the Bush administration would be forced to negotiate a settlement prior to military withdrawal, and that he had only to keep the Mahdi Army intact to emerge victorious over his Shiite rivals associated with the al-Hakim family.
Sadr aides told Raghavan that the Shiite cleric viewed the Democratic takeover of Congress and the struggle over Iraq policy as evidence that the final phase of the war had begun. His expression of willingness to cooperate with U.S. forces was aimed at positioning himself to be the main Iraqi interlocutor for the United States in the transition period.
Significantly, however, Sadr refused to deal with the Bush administration, believing that the Democrats would take a less bellicose posture toward his movement.
In any case, Sadr’s hopes that the U.S. command might leave the Mahdi Army alone were dashed by the aggressiveness of U.S. sweeps in Sadr City and other Sadr strongholds in Baghdad, which began in January even before the arrival of additional troops. By mid-March, Sadr had already begun to backtrack on cooperation with the U.S. occupation troops.
Even as Sadr was returning to open opposition to the U.S. military, the U.S. command was pushing the line that the Mahdi Army was "splintering" and that attacks on U.S. troops were coming only from "rogue" Mahdi Army elements.
A U.S. military official in Washington told the Associated Press in late March that some Mahdi Army figures were "breaking away to attempt a more conciliatory approach to the Americans and the Iraqi government," while others were "moving in a more extremist direction."
The key individual in the alleged "extremist" breakaway faction was said to be Qais al-Khazali, who was Sadr’s main spokesman in 2003 and 2004. Khazali and his brother, who had just been captured a few days before, were leaders of an Iraqi network that had apparently procured armor-piercing bombs and other weapons for the Mahdi Army.
In July, the U.S. military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, cited Khazali’s alleged testimony under interrogation as supporting the command’s argument that the Iranian Quds Force was creating a "Hezbollah-like" Shiite pro-Iranian force to do its bidding in Iraq.
But Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy director for Regional Operations at the Joint Staff in Washington, had obviously not been consulted about the Khazali breakaway ploy. In a press briefing on March 30, Barbero said, "[W]e assess that there are links between these brothers and Sadr’s organization."
Bergner’s portrayal of the Khazali organization as detached from Sadr’s movement was an example of how the U.S. command embraces interpretations that serve its political-military objectives, even when they don’t reflect its own intelligence judgments.
When the U.S. command carried out arrests of Mahdi Army commanders or cell leaders last spring and summer, they invariably referred to the targets as "rogue" Mahdi Army. In one such operation, U.S. and Iraqi troops captured the commander of what were called a "high-level rogue Jaysh al-Mahdi commander" of an "assassination cell" of more than 100 members.
But according to a July 28 New York Times report, both the head of the Sadr office in Baghdad and a Sadrist cleric preaching in nearby Kufa condemned the raid and called for the release of the detainees, indicating that they are still part of the Mahdi Army.
The "rogue" designation apparently referred to their resistance to the occupation, not to their relationship to the Mahdi Army command.
The U.S. command’s line that Iran is using Hezbollah operatives to train Shiite militias that had broken away from Sadr was further discredited when Sadr admitted in an interview with The Independent in August that his organization has "formal links" with Hezbollah, has sent fighters to Lebanon for training, and would continue to do so.
Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst who writes for the Inter Press Service. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.