New Iraqi alignment reveals US failure
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - A newly released WikiLeaks document on Iraq and the new political
alignment between Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki both provide fresh evidence that General David Petraeus's war against
Shi'ite militias in 2007-2008 was a futile exercise.
The WikiLeaks document is an intelligence report identifying the Shi'ite
commander who Petraeus said was the Iranian-backed rogue militia leader behind
the kidnapping and killing of five US troops in Karbala in January 2007. In
fact, according to the leaked document, it was a commander of Muqtada's Mahdi
That new information about the Karbala operation confirms earlier evidence that
in 2007 a political axis linking Iran, Muqtada and
Maliki was working to foil Petraeus' assault on the Mahdi Army and to hasten
the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
That political alignment is not a reflection of Iranian dominance over Iraqi
politics, but of a convergence of interests among Shi'ite actors in the Iraq
The same political alignment has now resurfaced as a pivotal development in the
formation of a new Iraqi government. Maliki and Muqtada have agreed to form a
new Shi'ite-dominated government, and Maliki traveled to Iran last week to meet
Muqtada and publicly thanked Iran for its help in bringing Muqtada into his
bloc of deputies.
The Maliki bloc now has two more votes than the Sunni-based al-Iraqiya bloc and
hopes to bring in the Kurds to collect enough votes to form a new government.
The December 2006 intelligence report in the WikiLeaks collection details a
plan to kidnap US soldiers in Baghdad. The report reveals that the militia
commander in charge of the operation, Ashar al-Dulaimi, was a subordinate to a
"senior Jaysh al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army] commander" named "Hasan" or "Salim".
Dulaimi was a key commander of the Mahdi Army's "secret cells", which had been
trained by Hezbollah officers working in cooperation with Iran's Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Muqtada had never hidden his military cooperation with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Despite Muqtada's open criticism of Iranian policy toward Iraq for its backing
of the rival Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, he also sent troops to be trained
The Mahdi Army plan to kidnap US troops did not unfold in Baghdad but in
Karbala, where five American soldiers were abducted in a raid on the Provincial
Joint Coordination Center on January 20, 2007, and later found dead. The US
military tracked Dulaimi to Sadr City in Baghdad and killed him in May 2007.
Petraeus' spokesman, General Kevin Bergner, later accused Iran of having
directed the Karbala attack through its control of networks of "special groups"
it armed and trained. Petraeus maintained consistently that Iran was backing
"rogue" units that had left the Mahdi Army.
The WikiLeaks documents show, however, that Petraeus and his command in Iraq
were well aware that Dulaimi was a Mahdi Army commander in charge of secret
operations. The Petraeus "special groups" line was aimed at hiding the fact
that the US command was determined to destroy as much of the Mahdi Army as
possible by claiming that it was actually attacking rogue Shi'ite militias.
The New York Times story on Iran-related WikiLeaks documents by Michael Gordon,
which portrays the documents as reconfirming the Petraeus line on Iran-backed
"special groups", highlighted the intelligence report on Dulaimi but omitted
the central fact that it clearly identifies him as a Mahdi Army commander.
The evidence also indicates that the Mahdi Army’s Karbala operation was done
with the full knowledge of the Maliki government.
Colonel Michael X Garrett, then commander of the Fourth Brigade combat team in
Karbala, confirmed to this writer in December 2008 that the Karbala attack "was
definitely an inside operation". Both the provincial governor and police chief
were suspected of having collaborated in the operation, Garrett said.
Governor Aqil al-Khazali was not a Sadrist but a member of Maliki's own Da'wa
Party and was presumably acting in line with a policy that came from Baghdad.
That was a sign that Maliki, Muqtada and Iran were still cooperating secretly,
even as Maliki was ostensibly cooperating with the US military against Muqtada.
Maliki maintained ties with Muqtada because he needed his support. Muqtada, who
had 30 members in the Iraqi parliament, had supplied the key votes that
installed Maliki as prime minister at an April 2006 meeting in the Green Zone
over which Iranian Quds Force commander Brigadier General Qasem Suleimani
presided, according to a story by McClatchy newspapers.
The Mahdi Army had also played the key role in 2006 and early 2007 on behalf of
the entire Shi'ite Alliance in the pivotal Battle of Baghdad against Sunni
insurgents, by carrying out an "ethnic cleansing" campaign against Sunnis in a
number of neighborhoods.
Sadrist deputies had left the government parliamentary bloc in September 2006,
and Muqtada attacked Maliki's renewal of the United Nations mandate for the
foreign military presence in November 2006.
In early 2007, however, Maliki's national security adviser, Nassar al-Rubaie,
told Reuters that they were negotiating on a proposal for a timetable for
withdrawal to heal the rift with Muqtada. He also expressed dismay at the US
military desire to "lure Muqtada into direct confrontation".
The Sadrists worked out an arrangement with Maliki under which US troops could
be kept out of Sadr City. Iraqi troops would take the lead in establishing
security in the Sadrist enclave, and US troops would not intervene unless there
was resistance by the Mahdi Army.
But the US military refused to honor the agreement and carried out large-scale
sweeps and even air strikes in Sadr City beginning in early 2007, claiming that
they were only targeting those "special groups".
The Mahdi Army command for secret military operations apparently planned their
counter-attack in Karbala in the hope of having some leverage over the US
military in Iraq.
Even as Maliki was ostensibly agreeing to US attacks on Mahdi Army commanders
in Sadr City, Petraeus told author Bing West in September 2007 that the
political link between Maliki and Muqtada was far from being broken. "JAM [the
Mahdi Army] has its hooks into the ministries," Petraeus told him. "It took
years to get this point, and it will take some time to get rid of it. Maliki is
working his way through it."
A series of moves from September 2007 to mid-2008 marked the unfolding of a
strategy by Maliki, supported by Iran, to get Muqtada to curb the Mahdi Army's
role in order to maneuver the George W Bush administration into negotiating a
timetable for total withdrawal.
Iran prevailed on Muqtada to agree to a unilateral ceasefire in September 2007
and to end fighting in Basra and Sadr City in late March and early May 2008.
The latter two agreements prevented US troops from carrying out major
offensives in both cases.
The quid pro quo for Muqtada's agreement to those ceasefires appears to have
been the promise of a US troop withdrawal.
Maliki's renewal of the alliance with Muqtada on the way to forming a new
Shi'ite government has brought strong protest from the Barack Obama
administration. US ambassador James Jeffrey has repeatedly said in recent weeks
that Muqtada's inclusion in an Iraqi government is unacceptable to Washington.
But that protest has only underlined the fact that the United States is the odd
man out in the Shi'ite-dominated politics of Iraq.
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.