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    Middle East
     Aug 11, 2009
Shi'ite unity deal explodes US myth
By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - The agreement announced last week between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and a Shi'ite resistance group called the League of the Righteous (As'ib al Haq) formally ended the group's armed opposition to the regime in return for the release of its leader and eight other Shi'ite detainees. This deals a final blow to the US military's narrative of an Iranian "proxy war" in Iraq.

The US command in Iraq has long argued that Iran was using "special groups" of Shi'ite insurgents who had broken away from cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army to destabilize the US-supported Iraqi regime - but pro-Iranian groups were weakened by US military pressures throughout 2007 and defeated by the Maliki regime in 2008.

The history of the new agreement confirms what was evident from


existing information: the League of the Righteous was actually the underground wing of the Mahdi Army all along, and the Sadrist insurgents were secretly working closely with the Maliki regime against the Americans and the British - even as it was at war with armed elements within the regime.

The contradictory nature of the relationship between Maliki and the Sadrists reflects the tensions between pro-Sadrist elements within the regime - including Maliki's Da'wa Party - and the anti-Sadrist elements led by the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The relationship between Maliki and the US was also marked by contradictions. Even though he was ostensibly cooperating with the US against the Sadrists in 2007 and 2008, the Maliki regime was also cooperating secretly with the Sadrist forces against the Americans. And Maliki - with the encouragement of Iran - was working on a strategy for achieving the complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq through diplomatic means, which he did not reveal to the Americans until summer 2008.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Qods Force commander was playing the role of mediator between Maliki and the Sadrists, encouraging the latter to reach ceasefires with the government on the promise that he would get American troops out of the country.

Representatives of the League of the Righteous have said their reconciliation with Maliki is based on a common aim of expelling the US military influence from Iraq.

One of the insurgent group's representatives, Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, explained the reconciliation with the government this week by observing that the government "is working to regain Iraqi sovereignty, and that is what the resistance was aimed towards".

But Salam al-Maliki, the insurgent group's liaison to the government, made it clear that the group had not renounced violence against the American troops. "We are only fighting the United States," the spokesman, who is not related to the prime minister, told the New York Times.

Underlining the lack of distinction between the "League" and the Sadrist movement, both of the main negotiators for the Shi'ite insurgents on the agreement are among Muqtada's most loyal lieutenants.

Salam al-Maliki was the head of the bloc of Sadrist members of parliament in 2006. Abdul Hadi al-Daraji was a senior aide to Muqtada when he was arrested in Baghdad in January 2007 by Iraqi special forces working closely with US forces. Muqtada complained to Maliki about the arrest, however, and Maliki adviser Sadiq al-Rikabi pledged that Daraji would be released.

Hadi al-Daraji was only released by the Americans in June 2009, however, as part of the deal with Shi'ite insurgents holding a British hostage they had taken in May 2007.

Before he was captured in March 2007, Qais Khazali - who is now said to be the leader of the "League" - was identified by US military officials as the leader of the allegedly Iranian-backed "special groups" of rogue Sadrist militants in Iraq before being captured.

But Khazali, who had been Muqtada's spokesman in Sadr City in 2004, had gone underground just as Muqtada was entering a period of participation in Iraq's constitutional politics. He and his brother Laith Khazali were engaged in operations - such as procuring weapons for the Mahdi Army - that Muqtada did not wish to acknowledge.

That was especially true when US troops were entering Sadr City for the first time. That is when Sadrist and Mahdi Army officials were attributing armed resistance to the Americans to breakaway groups under Iranian control.

But the underground Sadrist military units were in regular contact with the acknowledged Mahdi Army structure, as one member of a secret cell in Baghdad told Agence France-Presse in September 2007.

In any case, Muqtada himself publicly called for Khazali's release from detention in an interview with al-Jazeera in March 2008 - just a month after an organization related to Khazali had proposed to swap British hostages for nine Shi'ite leaders.

The Khazali organization had close operational links, moreover, with officials of the Maliki regime at province and central government levels.

On January 20, 2007, Shi'ite insurgents abducted five Americans from a joint Iraqi-US security center in Karbala and later killed them. The US military command spokesman, General Kevin Bergner, suggested at a briefing on July 2, 2007, that the US military had learned from Qais Khazali that Iran had directed the Karbala attack.

But an internal US army investigation had already found evidence that both the governor and police chief in Karbala had been complicit in the attack, as revealed by Time magazine two weeks later.

Colonel Michael X Garrett, commander of the Fourth Brigade combat team - which had responsibility for Karbala in 2007 - confirmed to this writer last December that the Karbala attack "was definitely an inside operation", and that the province governor Aqil al-Khazali, was suspected of having collaborated in the operation.

Khazali was a member of Maliki's Da'wa Party and held his job because of his loyalty to the prime minister.

On May 29, 2007, a large group of armed men seized five Britons from the Information Technology Center of the Finance Ministry in Baghdad, and the Shi'ite who later negotiated the deal with the government used the hostages to bargain for the freedom of Shi'ite detainees.

However, the Guardian reported on July 30 on a 10-month investigation into that hostage-taking. It found evidence that the kidnapping operation had the earmarks of an Iraqi state operation involving officials of the Interior and Finance ministries.

Iraqi intelligence agents who happened to be at the site and saw the kidnapping unfold told the investigators that the operation involved 20 white Toyota Landcruisers whose markings identified them as belonging to the Ministry of Interior.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie even hinted that there was official collusion, conceding in an on-camera interview with the Guardian that government institutions were "not fallible" and may have been "infiltrated".

Two days after the kidnapping, the Ministry of Defense warned those in the building during the operation to "forget everything" that had happened.

Investigators also identified a motive for an Iraqi government operation to kidnap the two British computer specialists (one of whom managed to avoided capture): they were installing a financial information system to track billions of dollars of oil and foreign assistance money through the government ministries - thus putting at risk the regime's large-scale embezzlement.

The evidence revealed by the Guardian suggests that the Shi'ite insurgents were given the British hostages as a way of covering up the official nature of the kidnapping. The Shi'ite apparently created the "Islamic Shi'ite Resistance in Iraq" - an organization that had not previously been heard of - merely for the purpose of holding the British hostages.

The February 2008 videotape offer by that group to release their British hostages in return for nine Shi'ite detainees, which prefigured the present reconciliation agreement, presumably reflected an understanding already reached with Maliki regime.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US 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.

(Inter Press Service)

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