WASHINGTON - The
escalation of fighting between Mahdi Army
militiamen and their Shi'ite rivals, which could
mark the end of Muqtada al-Sadr's self-imposed
ceasefire, also exposes General David Petraeus'
strategy for controlling Muqtada's forces as a
Petraeus reacted immediately to
Sunday's rocket attacks on the Green Zone by
blaming them on Iran. He told the BBC the rockets
were "Iranian provided, Iranian-made rockets", and
that they were launched by groups that were funded
and trained by the Quds Force of the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Petraeus said
this was "in complete violation of promises made
by President [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad and other most
senior Iranian leaders to their Iraqi
Petraeus statement was
clearly intended to divert attention from a
threatens one of the two main pillars of the
administration's claim of progress in Iraq - the
willingness of Muqtada to restrain the Mahdi Army,
even in the face of systematic raids on its
leadership by the US military and its Iraqi
The rocket attacks appear to have
been one of several actions by the Mahdi Army to
warn the United States and the Iraqi government to
halt their systematic raids aimed at driving the
Sadrists out of key Shi'ite centers in the south.
They were followed almost immediately by Mahdi
Army clashes with rival Shi'ite militiamen in
Basra, Sadr City and Kut and a call for a
nationwide general strike to demand the release of
Even more pointed was a
strong warning from Muqtada aide Abdul-Hadi
al-Mohammedawi to the United States as well as to
the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), whose
Badr Organization militiamen, in the uniforms of
Iraqi security forces, have targeted the Madhi
Army throughout the south. "They don't seem to
realize that the Sadrist trend is like a volcano,"
he told worshippers Friday in Kufa. "If it
explodes, it will crush their rotten heads."
The signs that the Madhi Army will no
longer remain passive mark a major defeat for the
US military command's strategy aimed at weakening
the Mahdi Army.
When he took command in
Iraq in early 2007, Petraeus recognized that the
US occupation forces could not afford to wage a
full-fledged campaign against the Mahdi Army as a
whole. Instead it adopted a strategy of dividing
the Sadrist movement.
Petraeus and the
ground commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ray
Odierno, hoped that there were leaders in the
Sadrist movement who would be willing to give up
further military resistance and accept the US
occupation and the existing government.
For months, the command tried to generate
a "dialogue" with "moderates" in the Sadrist camp.
It issued a series of statements hailing Muqtada's
willingness to change the purpose of his movement.
Most recently, on January 17, Odierno said, "I
believe he is trying to move forward with more of
a religious organization and get away from a
militia type-supported organization." But he
admitted, "That could change."
Petraeus targeted selected elements of the Mahdi
Army in raids in Sadr City and the Shi'ite south,
portraying its targets as "criminals" and "rogue
elements" which had broken away from Muqtada and
were armed, trained and financed by Iran. Odierno
suggested in his January 17 press briefing that
such renegade groups were causing "the majority of
But the "moderate" Sadrists
who would be willing to make a deal with the US
never materialized. Last July, a US commander in
Baghdad claimed that Sadrist representatives had
initiated "indirect" talks with the US military.
But in January, Odierno would say only that they
had been meeting with "local leaders" in Sadr
City, not with representatives of the Sadrist
The Mahdi Army's blunt warnings
of military countermeasures followed months of
raids against Muqtada's political-military
organization by both US forces and the Badr
Organization. According to a senior Sadrist
parliamentarian, between 2,000 and 2,500 Mahdi
Army militiamen had been detained since Muqtada
declared a ceasefire last August.
raids have been aimed at weakening the Madhi
Army's political hold on Shi'ite cities in
anticipation of eventual provincial elections.
During 2007 there were signs of strong
support for Muqtada in Najaf, Basra and Karbala,
as Sudarsan Raghavan reported in the Washington
Post last December. In Najaf, portraits of Muqtada
and his father, grand ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq
Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's
security forces in 1999, had "mushroomed defiantly
in the streets".
Muqtada's image had also
been "pervasive" in Karbala, according to
Raghavan, until security forces loyal to the ISCI
arrested more than 400 of Muqtada's followers in
an obvious effort to destroy its organization in
For months Muqtada had refrained
from authorizing a full-fledged response to such
attacks on his forces. But on Tuesday an officer
at Muqtada's headquarters in Najaf said the Mahdi
Army should be prepared to "strike the occupiers"
as well as the Badr Organization.
Revealing the contradictions built into
the US position in Iraq, even as it was blaming
Iran for the alleged renegade units of the Mahdi
Army, the US was using the Badr Organization, the
military arm of the ISCI, to carry out raids
against the Mahdi Army. The Badr Organization and
the ISCI had always been and remained the most
pro-Iranian political-military forces in Iraq,
having been established, trained and funded by the
IRGC from Shi'ite exiles in Iran during the
It was the ISCI leader
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim who had invited two IRGC
officers to be his guests in December 2006,
apparently to discuss military assistance to the
Badr Organization. The Iranian officials were
seized in the home of Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of
the Badr Organization and detained by the US
military. The George W Bush administration
continued throughout 2007 to cite those Iranian
visitors as evidence of the IRGC's illicit
intervention in Iraq.
But the Badr
Organization had become the indispensable element
of the Iraqi government's security forces, who
could be counted on to oppose the Mahdi Army in
the south. And in a further ironic twist, it was
the leaders of the ISCI and of the Nuri al-Maliki
government, which depended on Iranian support, who
insisted last summer and autumn that the US should
credit Iran with having prevailed on Muqtada to
agree to a ceasefire. The close collaboration of
the US command with these pro-Iranian groups
against Muqtada appears to be the main reason for
the State Department's endorsement of that
argument last December.
assertion that the rocket attacks on the Green
Zone were Iranian-inspired strongly implied that
Iran is still providing arms to Shi'ite militias.
However, Odierno told a press briefing in
mid-January, "We are not sure if they're still
importing [sic] weapons into Iraq."
admission came only after many months in which US
officers in the border provinces were unable to
find any evidence of arms coming across the border
Those officers also found no
trace of the alleged presence of the IRGC
personnel in Iraq. Last November, the French
weekly news magazine Le Point quoted Major Scott A
Pettigrew, the military intelligence chief in
Diyala province on the Iranian border, as saying,
"I have never seen any activity or presence of the
Quds Force. I see nothing here that resembles a
proxy war with Iran."
Porter is an historian and national
security policy analyst. The paperback edition of
his latest book, Perils of Dominance:
Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam,
was published in 2006.