Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Four Days For Sadr As Iran Picks Up Its Efforts In Iraq

Within four days, the temporary cease-fire imposed by Moqtada al-Sadr on his Mahdi Army will end. As the time nears, U.S. and Iraqi forces are clearly sending him a message with a bevy of raids on Iranian backed special groups to extend the cease fire or be squarely in the cross-hairs. Against this backdrop, Iran is apparently increasing their activity inside Iraq. Will Sadr extend the cease fire and, if not, what will be the consequences?


There is more unknown about Moqtada al-Sadr than there is known. The major unknowns are:

1. To what degree is Sadr controlled by Iran? We know that his movement has been financed and supplied by Iran. We know that Sadr is studying for a high clerical rank under the Khomeinist school of political Shia'ism. Is Iran pulling Sadr's strings? And if so, what does Iran want?

2. What is the number of the Mahdi Army and how much support does Sadr enjoy? These are two very big questions. As the Iraqi national government gets ever greater control over the security situation in Iraq, the motivation of many people to support Sadr for the protection offered by his Mahdi Army seems to be on the wane. So would a revolt now by Sadr be a bang or a whimper?

3. Conversely, if Sadr keeps his movement in a cease fire posture, will that further degrade his influence as the government consolidates their position?

These are some of the questions we may soon have answers to when, by February 23, Sadr must either extend his cease fire or allow it to expire, potentially coming into open conflict again with U.S. and a far more robust Iraqi government security force than he ever faced previously. All of this is playing out against a backdrop of increased Iranian adventurism inside Iraq. In the run-up to February 23, U.S. and Iraq forces are sending a clear message to Sadr, as reported at the Long War Journal:

As previously reported at The Long War Journal, US and Iraqi forces have stepped up operations against the Iranian-backed and Mahdi Army-linked Special Groups terror cells. The increase in activity comes as Muqtada al Sadr is deliberating the reinstatement or cancellation of the self-imposed cease-fire.

Since the last report, the US military has singled out a former Mahdi Army commander as being behind violence in northern Baghdad while a senior spokesman said Iran is still supporting terror operations in Iraq. "The intent of Iran in supporting the training and financing [the Special Groups] we believe continues," said Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, the director of Multinational Forces Iraq's Communication Division. "In just the past week, Iraqi and coalition forces captured 212 weapons caches across Iraq, two of those coming from here inside Baghdad, with growing links to the Iranian-backed special groups."

A look at the press releases from Multinational Forces Iraq's website shows the command has stepped up operations to counter the Special Groups. Eight operations were reported against the terror cells in the three-day period from Feb. 12 to Feb. 14. Ten encounters were reported from Feb. 15 to Feb. 17. Several of the engagements, including a major clash between police and a Special Groups platoon, involved Iraqi security forces: . . .

• US soldiers captured a top lieutenant of Arkan Hasnawi, a Special Groups leader, during an operation in northern Baghdad Feb. 17. "Northern Baghdad is an area that Special Groups criminals have wanted to dominate for some time, and it is pretty clear that this is the foreign influenced Special Groups," said Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander, the executive officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, which operates in the region.

Several of the press releases ended with the standard warning to Sadr and his Mahdi Army. "We will continue to disrupt the networks of those who choose not to obey al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire pledge. ... The people of Iraq have made it clear that they will not tolerate the criminal activities of these splinter groups." The US military is warning Sadr that ending the cease-fire will result in operations designed to dismantle the Mahdi Army.

The identification of the Arkan Hasnawi Special Groups Network as a major threat is another overt message to Sadr. Arkan Hasnawi was a brigade commander in Sadr's Mahdi Army, and thus serves as a link to Sadr. Hasnawi has been linked to multiple attacks on US and Iraq security forces and was behind the kidnapping of Shia and Sunni tribal leaders in Diyala province in October 2007. His network was also behind the kidnapping of six Sons of Iraq from a checkpoint in Baghdad’s Ur neighborhood on Feb. 7. Three are still missing.

The Iraqi government is also applying legal pressure on Sadr. The government will begin the trial of former Deputy Health Minister Hakim al Zamili and Brigadier General Hameed al Shimmari, who served as the chief of the ministry's security forces. Both Zamili and Shimmari, who are members of the Mahdi Army, were arrested by Iraqi soldiers last year after being charged with running terror operations from the Health Ministry. The Health Ministry was one of six ministries run by Sadr's political party before it withdrew from the government. A spokesman for the Sadrist movement called the charges "false and baseless."

The increase in military, legal, and political pressure is causing rifts within the Mahdi Army and Sadrist movement leadership. One of the five panels formed by Sadr to advise on the course of action with regards to the cease-fire has counseled against the extension. Salih al Ukayli, a Sadrist movement parliamentarian, has openly pushed to end the cease-fire.

Sadr's decision to either continue or end the cease-fire has serious implications for his political movement. Ending the ceasefire puts him in the crosshairs of the US and Iraqi military, and expose the depth or shallowness of his support in the Shia community. This would also risk any remaining goodwill that exists in the Shia community, which has enjoyed the recent reduction in violence and has become increasingly hostile to the activities of the Mahdi Army.

But extending the ceasefire may further erode Sadr's power within his political movement and the Mahdi Army. "As the pressures on the Sadrist Current mount with what it sees as a campaign of politically motivated arrests against its supporters, it may raise the question of Muqtada al Sadr's ability to impose his will on the political leadership of the Sadrist Current," IraqSlogger reported. Sadr's inability to enforce a ceasefire would reduce his political and military power, which has waned over the past year since the surge began.

Read the article. If Sadr does not extend the ceasefire, than the U.S. should target him directly. Sadr's studies in the Iranian political form of Shia'ism portends all sorts of mischief in the future. Arguably, the U.S. should have killed Sadr in 2004. We may yet seriously rue the failure to pull the trigger back then. All of that said, Sadr has minimal support in the Iraqi government at the moment, and making further mischief would be a dangerous gamble for him at the moment indeed. We shall soon hear of his decision, one way or the other.

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