Will Iran Enter the Iraq War?

Iran has been the culprit in the shadows disrupting Bush Administration plans in Iraq since we launched the invasion in 2003. Now, planning to implement a military surge in Iraq, President Bush is headed toward a confrontation with Iran, possibly without fully realizing how complete a grasp on Iraq that Iran already has.

The reality is that we are already in a proxy war with Iran in Iraq, not only through Hezbollah pressing Israel from Lebanon and Hamas lobbing rockets on Israel from the Gaza, but also from Muqtada al-Sadr, the 33 year-old radical Shi’ite cleric who heads what is known as the “Mahdi Army.” Moreover, Nouri Kamel al-Maliki, the prime minister of the Iraqi majority-Shi’ite government we have established, may be more truly on the side of Muqtada al-Sadr than a full supporter of President Bush.

The analysis has to begin with Muqtada al-Sadr’s and the fame his family holds among Iraqi Shi’ites. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was a famous Shia Imam who was killed in Najaf along with two of his sons in 1999 by gunmen who were widely presumed to be agents of Saddam Hussein. His father-in-law was Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who in 1980 was executed by Saddam Hussein for writing in defense of Ayatollah Khomeini and his radical revolution in Iran. Although Muqtada al-Sadr is too young and insufficiently studied in Islam to be a true Imam, the family traces its lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed and holds a distinguished and respected place among the Iraqi Shi’ite faithful.

Muqtada al-Sadr has to be considered the unofficial leader of the Sadr City section of Baghdad and the champion of radical Shi’ite Muslims throughout Iraq. Many of those elected to the Shi’ite majority in the Iraqi legislature bear their primary allegiance to Muqtada al-Sadr. The unofficial cell phone recorded version of Saddam Hussein’s execution showed him taunted in the last moments of his life by executioners who taunted him by chanting Muqtada al-Sadr’s name. The crux of the expanding civil war in Iraq is the current Shi’ite ascendancy which threatens Iraq’s minority Sunni population who previously held power in Saddam’s Ba’athist regime.

Certainly, we should all recall the horrific images of March 31, 2004, graphic videos of the corpses of four American civilians who were dragged from a burning car, mutilated and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, with the perpetrators being supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. We should also recall the U.S. response, when in April 2004 then-top commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq, Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez vowed to take Muqtada al-Sadr “dead or alive,” after Muqtada al-Sadr’s led a Shi’ite uprising in the southern Iraqi towns of Najaf, Kufa, and Karbala. In August 2004, the U.S. military launched air strikes against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Najaf, Fallujah, and Baghdad’s Shi’ite Sadr City suburb. In 2004, the fighters of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army occupied the Imam Ali Shrine, the fourth holiest site to Shi’ite Muslims, noted as the burial site of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib. Ali was the fourth caliph and the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed, one of Shi’ite Islam’s most revered martyrs who was murdered by secular Muslim enemies. Sadr City is the Baghdad center of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, as is Najaf in the south of Iraq.

Time Magazine, in mentioning Muqtada al-Sadr as one of the “People Who Mattered 2006,” noted that his defining moment came on October 18, 2006, when Prime Minister al-Maliki visited him at his home, on a visit to Najaf that previously would have been limited only to meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, the Iranian-born grand patriarch Imam of Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslems. Time estimated that Muqtada al-Sadr holds the loyalty of 30 members of Iraq’s 275-seat parliament, the second largest group within the dominant Shi’ite alliance, estimated at enough to undermine al-Maliki’s fragile coalition.

Simply put, Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army have arisen as folk heroes among the Shi’ite Iraqis, every bit as much as Iran-backed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has arisen as a Shi’ite folk hero in southern Lebanon. As a result, both radical leaders possess an ability to destabilize their respective governments, Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq and Nasrallah in Lebanon, as was demonstrated with the recent waves of protests Hezbollah held in December 2006 around the Beirut government headquarters of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

In April 2004, reports were circulating in Arabic newspapers that the “Qods” (“Jerusalem”) Army of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had constructed three training camps and training centers on the Iranian-Iraqi border to train Muqtada al-Sadr’s Madhi Army in guerilla warfare, the production of bombs and explosives, the use of small arms, and reconnoitering and espionage. In March 2006, the international press reported that Muqtada al-Sadr and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah each separately had meetings with top government officials in Tehran. In November 2006, an unnamed “senior American intelligence official” leaked to the international press a report that between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army had been trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is named after the Twelfth Imam, the twelfth grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who devout Shi’ite Muslims believe went down a well and disappeared in 941 AD. Ahmadinejad has professed his belief that the Twelfth Imam, also referred to as the “Mahdi,” will emerge from the well soon, to bring triumph for Shi’ite Islam over the Jews in Israel, over the United States, and over Sunni Islam worldwide. The problem is that Ahmadinejad believes an apocalypse is necessary to occasion the reappearance of the Mahdi and Ahmadinejad has announced that he believes it is his divinely appointed role to do everything necessary to cause the Mahdi to return.

In proposing a surge of some 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, President Bush is deriving his advice not from James Baker and the Iran Study Group, but from Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who authored a December 14, 2006 report entitled, “Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq.” Mr. Kagan’s biography on the AEI website identifies him as a “military historian” whose only discernable military experience is that he has evidently taught some courses at West Point. A key strategy Mr. Kagan identifies to “secure the Iraqi population” is the “disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of Iraqi militias,” including evidently militias such as Muqtada al-Sadr Mahdi Army. Mr. Kagan carefully distinguishes that his plan is not an “operational plan,” nor does he give any hint about just exactly how the U.S. military together with Iraqi forces are going to accomplish the goal of disarming Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. One thing that presumably even Mr. Kagan will agree that will not work is an announcement in the newspapers that a center has been established for the militia members to come in and hand over their guns.

Mr. Kagan himself implicitly admits the complexity and operational difficulty of the task when he acknowledges on page 14 of his report the following three objectives of what he calls the “Badr Corps and other Politically affiliated Militias”:

  • Rivalry with other Shia factions for mastery of the Iraqi government post-Coalition withdrawal and imposition of Shia Sharia law.
  • Revenge killings of Sunni militants, and intimidation murder/torture of Sunni civilians to drive them from mixed districts, solidifying their own patronage network within cleared districts.
  • Some desire to coerce the withdrawal of Coalition forces through covert indirect attacks, though most are relatively neutral towards the Coalition because they profit from the U.S. supported Iraqi government.

The U.S. military in Iraq has been trying on and off since 2004 to hunt down and kill Muqtada al-Sadr to no avail. In reality, all our campaign against Muqtada al-Sadr has accomplished to date is to elevate his status, bringing him more acclaim amongst the radical Islamic followers throughout the Shi’ite world.

On January 18, 2007, al-Maliki’s office reported that some 400 militia fighters from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army have been arrested. Reports coming from Baghdad suggest that the Iraqi military approach is to arrest those who have weapons in the Muqtada al-Sadr controlled areas, beginning with Sadr City. In response to this tactic, many Mahdi Army militia members can be expected to hide their weapons and remove any identifying clothing. If the Iraqi and U.S. military forces persist with this approach, the situation could easily deteriorate to what we saw in 2004 — house to house fighting in an intra-city conflict where militants have no hesitation to hide out in mosques or other high collateral-injury locations. Even focused air strikes in 2004 did little to disarm or reduce the fighting strength of Muqtada al-Sadr militia.

We miss a key point in understanding terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Hezbollah raises funds in international charity and receives an estimated $250 million from Iran. Since 2004, Iran has been providing direct financial assistance to Muqtada al-Sadr. Hezbollah is popular in southern Lebanon and Muqtada al-Sadr is popular in Shi’ite controlled cities in Iraq in large part because both use available funds to operate as an effective mafia in the areas they control. Locals go on the Hezbollah or Muqtada al-Sadr payroll, with the expectation that the economic support they are receiving will buy their political loyalty. Today, Hezbollah is fully integrated into the fabric of southern Lebanon, to the point where no one could expect to hold employment or a position in a mosque unless they were also loyal clients of Hezbollah. In the areas of Iraq that Muqtada al-Sadr controls, his Mahdi Army is equally integrated into the social and economic fabric of the local community.

We should not expect that either Muqtada al-Sadr or Iran will sit by idly and watch a U.S.-led military effort succeed in the stated goal of disarming radical militias, especially not if the definition of radical militias includes Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the group in Iraq that is right now largely the problem. Al Qaeda continues to be operative in Iraq, killing both Sunnis and Shi’ites in the hopes of fueling the civil war. But since the killing of al-Zarqawi in Iraq on June 7, 2006, the dominant terrorist militia is Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Ironically, to the extent the U.S. and Iraqi forces are successful disarming Shi’ite militias in Iraq, we may find that increasing tension will develop between the U.S. and the al-Maliki Shi’ite government in Iran. In 2006, Iraq President Jabal Talabani and Iraq Prime Minister al-Maliki both traveled to Iran to confer with top officials of the Ahmadinejad regime. Truthfully, Iran could conclude that we have fulfilled a key prophecy of Ayatollah Khomeini now that Saddam Hussein has been executed. With Saddam gone and a Shi’ite majority government in Iraq, Tehran could argue that the U.S. won for Iran the 8-year war Iran fought against Iraq in the 1980s.

To the extent the U.S. and Iraqi military forces attempt to disarm Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, we should expect Iran to turn up the heat, possibly by giving the green light to Hezbollah to resume rocket attacks on Israel from Lebanon and to Hamas to do the same from the Gaza.

President Bush has chosen to go down the path of increased military confrontation in Iraq and the resultant risk is that the Iraq war will expand into a regional war with Iran more directly at the center than ever.