Muqtada toys with US's Iraq
intentions By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The big question looming over
United States-Iraqi negotiations on a US military
presence after 2011 is what game Shi'ite leader
Muqtada al-Sadr is playing on the issue.
United States officials regard Muqtada as
still resisting the US military presence illegally
and are demanding that Muqtada call off his
Promised Day Brigades completely.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's main point of
contact with Muqtada says he is playing a double
game and does not intend to obstruct the
negotiations on a deal for the stationing of
10,000 or more US troops from 2012 onward.
Muqtada made a crucial move over the
weekend toward accepting such an agreement between
the Barack Obama administration
and the Maliki government,
according to a senior Iraqi intelligence official
in the International Liaison Office (ILO). The ILO
is an arm of Iraqi military intelligence that is
run by a former East German intelligence official
who was Muqtada's political adviser during the
height of the US war against the Sadrists in
Muqtada agreed in an unpublicized
direct exchange of views with Maliki that he would
not exploit a request by Maliki to Obama to
station US troops in Iraq beyond this year by
attacking Maliki politically or threatening his
government, the senior Iraqi intelligence official
told Inter Press Service (IPS).
popular Shi'ite leader has maintained a
longstanding threat to withdraw support from the
government over the US military presence. But when
questioned directly by Maliki about his
intentions, Muqtada agreed that there would be no
repeat of his 2006 withdrawal of Sadrist ministers
from Maliki's first government over that issue,
according to an account of the exchange provided
by the Iraqi intelligence official.
"Maliki called Sadr's bluff," he said.
Muqtada's ambiguous position on the US
troop presence is understood by the ILO to be key
to his role as kingmaker in Maliki's government,
as well as his need to maintain the support of the
poor and dispossessed Shi'ite who represent his
political power base.
"He has to placate
two different constituencies," the official told
IPS. That means taking a hard line on the US troop
presence in Arabic language public statements
meant for his Shi'ite constituency, but taking an
accommodating line in private contacts with
Muqtada has displayed an
uncompromising posture toward the US military
presence in recent weeks. The Promised Day
Brigade, which Muqtada created in 2008 to fight
against US forces, had attacked US bases and troop
convoys in June. The establishment of the brigade
followed the disbanding of Muqtada's Mahdi Army in
The brigade issued a statement
on June 28 claiming responsibility for 10 mortar
and Katyusha rocket attacks against US bases
around the country as well as attacks on US
military convoys, saying that the attacks had
"killed and wounded a number of US soldiers".
Attacks by Shi'ite militias killed 15 US
troops in June - the highest monthly total of
troops killed in combat since June 2008.
United States officials in Baghdad
included the Promised Day Brigade among the three
Shi'ite militias they said had been funded and
armed by Iran and had killed US troops.
Last weekend, in a statement posted on his
website, Muqtada said nothing to disassociate
himself from the Promised Day Brigade's operations
against US forces or its claim of responsibility
for killing US troops. Instead, he announced the
brigade would have the "mission" of "resisting" US
troops if they are not all gone by December 31 -
the deadline for withdrawal under the agreement
signed by George W Bush in November 2008.
But the ILO has been telling officials at
the White House and the Pentagon that, in order to
avoid antagonizing Washington, Muqtada had ordered
the brigade to limit its attacks to "hard targets"
- installations and armored vehicles - to minimize
the likelihood of US casualties, according to the
senior Iraqi intelligence official.
ILO has dismissed the statement by the brigade
claiming to have killed and wounded US troops as
coming from a hardline faction within the Sadrist
movement close to Iran. It says this faction was
hoping to force Muqtada's hand on the negotiations
on a US troop presence.
The ILO official
points to Muqtada's actions over the weekend as
evidence that he has made significant
accommodations to allow the negotiations to go
The Muqtada statement, posted on
the same weekend as his exchange with Maliki, said
the Promised Day Brigade would be given the
mission of resisting US occupation if and when the
US troops were not withdrawn.
legislator, Mushriq Naji, made the same point in
an interview with Aswat al-Iraq newspaper on July
11. "The Promised Day Brigade is carrying out the
missions of resistance now and in the future," he
said, "in the event of non-withdrawal of the
That message appeared to
contradict the June 28 statement from the brigade
that said that the attacks would continue.
Muqtada's statement also withdrew a threat
he had made in April to "restart the activities of
the Mahdi Army" if the US didn't withdraw by the
end of the year. The reactivation of the Mahdi
Army had been regarded as part of an implicit
threat to bring down the government over the issue
of US troops.
But US officials aren't
buying the idea that Muqtada is playing a double
game. Asked if anyone involved in Iraq policy
believed Muqtada had signaled that he would
tacitly allow the negotiations to go ahead, one
official said, "I don't think so."
General Jeffrey Buchanan, official spokesman for
United States Forces-Iraq, vehemently denied in
response to an e-mail query from IPS that Muqtada
was restraining the Promised Day Brigade in
relation to US forces.
"Last month, PDB
[Promised Day Brigades] claimed responsibility for
52 attacks against US forces," Buchanan said,
adding that claims that the brigade had not caused
any casualties to US forces and that Muqtada would
not obstruct negotiations on an agreement "carry
no credibility in our eyes whatsoever".
Civilian officials working on Iraq take a
more nuanced view of Muqtada, but are not yet
convinced that he will acquiesce to a US presence
beyond 2011. "It's still unclear what Sadr is
doing," said one US official who follows the issue
closely. "He doesn't seem to have stable
preferences on this issue."
added that he is "99% sure" that the Promised Day
Brigade had caused some casualties among US
troops. He concedes, however, that most of those
casualties have come from two much smaller Shi'ite
militia groups, neither of which is regarded as
responsive to Muqtada's direct command.
The US demand that Muqtada give up the
Promised Day Brigades entirely is one that he
probably could not meet without risking the loss
of his Shi'ite political base. If an agreement
were reached in time on stationing US troops
beyond this year, Muqtada would have to go through
at least the motions of attacking US military
installations, according to the ILO official.
If tensions between the US military and
Muqtada continue to rise, Muqtada may reverse
course and drop the covert inside game he is said
to have adopted. Ironically, the US inability or
unwillingness to play along with a Muqtada double
game on a US troop presence could help Iran stymie
the US effort to preserve a rapidly dwindling
influence in Iraq.
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.