Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sadr, Iran, Hezbollah and the Special Groups

Sadr's Mahdi Army is an Iranian creation along the lines of - and with ties to - Hezbollah. The U.S. military has long maintained the fiction that a portion of the Mahdi Army, the special groups directly funded and trained by Iran, are seperate and apart from the Mahdi Army and acting outside of Sadr's control. It has been an effort to provide a face saving measure that would allow for, at best, Sadr to turn from Iran, and at least, to winnow off those people in the Sadrist camp who do want to be part of the Iranian inspired violence. But it is not an accurate portrayal.

The Long War Journal adds a piece to the Sadr/Iran puzzle today:"

IN THE PAST MONTH, Iraqi and coalition forces have succeeded in their fight against the Mahdi Army's "special groups." On May 3, the U.S. military destroyed a special groups command center in Sadr City, killing a wanted leader in the attack. On May 25, Iraqi special operations forces captured a mid-level special groups leader in the al-Shuala area of Baghdad. And on May 31, Iraqi special operations forces captured another special groups "criminal" in Baghdad who was suspected of indirect-fire attacks on coalition forces. The frequency with which the term "special groups" has been thrown around in recent months (stretching back to the fighting in Basrah that flared up in late March) highlights the confusion that exists over what these groups really are.

Much of this confusion has been created by the U.S. military. In a July 2007 press conference, for example, Major General Kevin Bergner identified the special groups as secret cells of "militia extremists, funded, trained, and armed by external sources." Bergner explained during the press conference that the special groups had "evolved over the past three years into what are largely rogue elements" that operate separately from the core Mahdi Army.

Under this analysis, which has been repeated by various military spokesmen and widely accepted by the mainstream media, these special groups operate largely independently from Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al Sadr. The U.S. military maintains this narrative for tactical and political reasons. The problem with the claim is that it obscures Sadr's actual role in some of the most important events transpiring in Iraq.

THE MAHDI ARMY, known as Jaish al-Mahdi in Arabic, was created in the summer of 2003 and is led by the radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Iraq expert Toby Dodge of the University of Warwick has said that Mahdi Army's membership is comprised mainly of "those young and desperate Shia in Iraq's urban slums who have not seen any benefit to their lives from liberation." In November 2006, the Pentagon's quarterly report Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq stated that the Mahdi Army had "replaced al-Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq."

The Mahdi Army's activities are often compared to those of the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon. The comparison is apt: The late Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh likely played a substantial role in the Mahdi Army's founding, and Mahdi Army members claim to have traveled to Lebanon to train with Hezbollah (an assertion confirmed by the U.S. government). In August 2007, Muqtada al Sadr publicly confirmed Mahdi Army's relationship with Hezbollah, stating: "We have formal links with Hizbollah, we do exchange ideas and discuss the situation facing Shiites in both countries . We copy Hizbollah in the way they fight and their tactics, we teach each other and we are getting better through this." Further proof of this relationship can be seen in the United States's capture of Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Hezbollah operative who was in Iraq to help establish new Mahdi Army units along the lines of Hezbollah.

Sadr himself is something of an anomaly. . . . A profile of Sadr in Cairo's Al Ahram Weekly states:

The sentences he utters are awkward and incomplete, and somehow lacking in conviction--hardly what one would expect of a man for whom the spoken word is his stock in trade. The black-turbaned clergymen of Iraq are masters of rhetorical eloquence, yet it would appear that the young Moqtada does not excel in this domain. His turn of phrase is alien to his surroundings, prone to collapse into casual speech and slang. As a public speaker, he fails to rise even to the level of the average literate Iraqi.

Sadr failed to finish his seminary education. In The Shia Revival, Vali Nasr notes that "as a youth he was better at playing video games than dealing with the intricacies of Shia law and theology (in his seminary days he was nicknamed Mulla Atari, after the maker of electronic amusements)." Despite this, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate Sadr's influence among Iraq's Shias--and to underestimate the degree of control he is capable of exerting over the Mahdi Army's disparate factions.

. . . Information about the degree of division within the Mahdi Army is sparse and often contradictory, with many assumptions built upon little evidence. However, the best reading of the situation is that although Sadr frequently gives the special groups autonomy over their local actions, he maintains the ability to control them when he chooses.

There are numerous reasons that information about the Mahdi Army's special groups is contradictory, but the biggest culprit has been the U.S. military's public statements. The military has taken a carrot-and-stick approach with Sadr and the Mahdi Army, encouraging Sadr to maintain the ceasefire that he declared in August 2007. As a result of this approach, the American military sees two strategic purposes behind trumpeting divisions between Sadr and the special groups. First, it is a face-saving tool. The military is able to save face by not labeling Sadr a terrorist, and thus maintaining its ability to engage him. Sadr in turn is able to save face before the Iraqi public: Whenever he quells the special groups' violent actions, he won't be seen as backing down before the U.S. because (according to this narrative) he did not initiate the violence in the first place. Second, the military hopes to drive an actual wedge between Sadr and some of the more violent Mahdi Army factions through this rhetoric.

To be sure, there are legitimate tensions within the Mahdi Army, including with respect to the splinter groups. One intelligence source told The Observer's Peter Beaumont in September 2006: "Certain parts [of Mahdi Army] are now operating like old-fashioned mobs. In the last year or so power has been given to certain individuals. They have created their own small armies which have gained power by controlling rackets around petrol stations, and thefts from people they kidnap and kill." . . . There is also bitterness toward Sadr within some [radical] Mahdi Army ranks due to his involvement in the political process, however halting. . . .

Despite these tensions, Sadr still exercises a significant degree of control over Mahdi Army activities, including those of the "splinter groups." . . .

As you move away from the official pronouncements of military spokesmen, American soldiers on the ground see little distinction between the Mahdi Army and the special groups. Captain Ron Underwood, an intelligence officer with the unit responsible for southeastern Sadr City, told the Washington Post that "the special groups all have direct communication with OMS [the office of Muqtada al Sadr]." Colonel John Hort, commander of the brigade fighting in Sadr City, told the Post: "Of course we're fighting Mahdi Army. There are hundreds of them throughout Sadr City." . . .

In addition to Sadr, Iran has great influence over the special groups. Iran's efforts at cultivating ties with Sadr and the Mahdi Army have been evident from the time of the militia's creation. These efforts have come in two forms: direct engagement with Sadr and his senior commanders, and (in Robert Dreyfuss's words) "reaching deep into Sadr's Mahdi Army militia." Iran has maintained a constant line of communication with Sadr. In fact, a senior U.S. intelligence source told us that while Sadr controls Mahdi Army, he is in turn "controlled by Iran through religious channels." Mullah Atari, having never finished seminary, depends heavily on Iranian clerics for religious support.

THE U.S. MILITARY IS not necessarily wrong for looking for ways to engage Sadr, and creating a narrative that allows this to happen. The considerations that produced this course of action are entirely reasonable. But analysts and commentators who do not peer below the surface are likely to misread the situation in Iraq, and the complex role that Sadr plays.

Read the entire article.


Dave Schuler said...

Sadr's Mahdi Army is an Iranian creation along the lines of - and with ties to - Hezbollah.

That problem that faces us is so is Maliki's faction. That practically all of the functioning political parties in Iraq have their own armed wings is a fundamental problem.

I think the most interesting question at hand on Iraq is why have the Iranians pulled back in their support of Sadr? Strong horse/weak horse? Divide et impera?

GW said...

Maliki's Daiwa (sp?) party has ties to Iran, just as do most of the extant parties arising out of the Shia Iraqis. That said . . .

1. The Shia parties differ greatly in important ways, only some of which favor Iran.

2. The Shia parties, even combined, do not hold a majority in Parliament.

3. As far as I am aware, the Daiwa Party has no militia component.

4. There are several militias associated with the Shia parties, though the only one that has been heavilly involved in the fight against both the U.S. and the central government has been Sadr.

5. The irony is that the Sadrist position on federalism is probably best for the country, while the SICI position of a loose confederation is worse.

6. Though there has been speculation, I have seen no hard evidence yet that Iran has pulled back from support of Sadr in the slightest. They have been going around him for two years in providing specialized training, funding and supplies to the special groups.

7. The legislation currently before Parliament would require all political parties to disarm their militias in order to participate in the political process. Though clearly aimed at Sadr, it would also apply to SICI, Fadl, etc.

8. Disarming the militias was a benchmark. As to small arms, every Iraqi is authorized to be armed with pistol and rifle for self protection, so there will never be a complete disarmarmant. But the medium and heavy weapons are a different story entirely.

9. Iran's big push now is to stop the SOFA agreement. I would not be surprised if they halted support for terrorism in Iraq for a few months until the SOFA is resolved. But that will be at most temporary and, indeed, they are so heavy handed, they may well not even pause their terrorist activities.