Fighting with friends
The US military is now fighting with Shi'ite militias, raising the question of whether this is a deliberate attempt by the Bush administration to diminish the power of these militias, or an unwitting consequence of appearing to be impartial in the growing sectarian violence in the country. Either way, the result is that the US is alienating Shi'ites, on whom they have, up to now, pinned most of their hopes for stabilizing the country.
On Sunday, at least 40 Iraqis were killed after elite US and Iraqi troops staged an operation in Sadr City in Baghdad, the stronghold of influential Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army, a militia with which the US has clashed before. Police said the incident erupted after the Mehdi Army tried to stop troops from entering a mosque, but accounts vary widely.
The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the dominant Shi'ite bloc in parliament, called for the US to turn over control of all security operations to the Iraqi government, while some UIA politicians said they would pull out of the talks to form a government.
Shi'ites in Iraq look on US forces in their country as a necessary evil: a reality that will help cement their rule, but still an "evil" force given its pro-Israeli posture. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the powerful cleric to whom Shi'ites defer, probably has the best idea of exploiting the American presence in his country: he has used it to institutionalize Shi'ite dominance, with a clear Islamist twist.
The fly in the ointment, from the Shi'ite perspective, was the decision of Sunnis in January to participate in elections. Consequently, they emerged as a respectable bloc, with every intention of becoming involved in the intricate game of coalition-building following the elections. This process is still under way.
In this sense, the elections became extremely crucial. The UIA lost its dominance of the previous election. So did the Kurds. However, in the horse-trading to choose a premier, a major split emerged among the Shi'ites and between the Kurds when Ibrahim al-Jaafari was elected by one vote, after Muqtada supported him.
Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, although he holds a largely ceremonial position, was unhappy with the choice of Jaafari, and has said he will not accept him. These are some of the undercurrents that are playing an important role in the inability of the various Iraqi factions to formulate a national government.
To understand the growing US-Shi'ite rift, one has to keep several factors in mind. The Bush administration is increasingly wary of the growing power of Muqtada. The young and relatively junior cleric has proved to be an adept political actor. By maneuvering the election of Jaafari as prime minister designate, he clearly established himself as a power that the US military had to reckon with.
He also started making confusing statements regarding Iran, with which the US has signaled it will hold talks on Iraq's future. Muqtada has stated that Iraq would not follow the Iranian example of adopting a vilayat-e-faqih (rule of the clergy) model of governance. On other occasions, he showed a clear affinity toward Iran by stating that any US attack on Iran would be deemed as an attack on Shi'ite identity.
Muqtada has also made a point of building an alliance with Sunni groups. The Sunnis don't exactly trust him, but they have ample reason to have more positive feelings toward him than toward other Shi'ite leaders who are much closer to Iran. These Shi'ites also want Iraq to be carved into virtually independent zones, something that would marginalize the Sunnis, certainly economically, as they would be excluded from oil-rich areas.
As the US becomes focused on creating a "national unity" government, Muqtada's role is appearing as a major obstacle. Besides, the bloody role played by Shi'ite militias in Iraq has also provided ample reasons for the US military to confront the Mehdi Army. Sunday's clash might have been the moment of showdown that most observers have been expecting.
Whether this is an isolated incident, or the beginning of an era of confrontation between Shi'ites and US forces, is unclear. There is little doubt, though, that US forces have shown their resolve to confront Muqtada.
Considering the growing combustibility of the political situation in Iraq and amid increasing speculation about the outbreak of full-blown civil war, the last thing the Bush administration needed was to confront Shi'ite forces. But this is exactly what is developing.
In the wake of the explosion at the Shi'ite Golden Dome in Samarra last month, US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has urged Shi'ite leaders to be politically accommodating toward Sunnis, even as the incident inflamed sectarian violence between the groups.
However, the Shi'ites are depicting the US diplomat's suggestion as an appeasement of Sunnis. Thus, Sunday's raid is being interpreted by Shi'ites as more evidence of strong-arm tactic used by the US government to force a concession from them regarding Sunnis, including the "real" objective of the Bush administration - to drop Jaafari as the nominee of the UIA for prime minister.
The most important aspect of the growing rift between the US and Shi'ites is that Sistani's reaction has not been forthcoming. It appears that he is unwilling to show his hand until he is convinced who is at fault in this latest development. Sistani is no fan of the American forces, but he is not likely to be critical of the Americans at this sensitive time.
There is little doubt that the Americans are not interested in unnecessarily inflaming the situation by confronting Muqtada. At the same time, they are not likely to back down if there is no unity government within the next few days. The chief culprits, in their estimation, are Muqtada, his Mehdi Army and other Shi'ite militias.
They seem to have concluded that they have reached a point when they must confront or even help the Iraqi security forces in dismantling these militias, and as they do this they are likely to realize that, in most instances, the Iraqi security forces are an extension of these Shi'ite militias.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.