Frozen Shia Militia Previews Strategic Shift

Last week, radical Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader of the Jaish al-Mahdi army Moqtada al-Sadr stood-down his militia in a bid to deflect criticism over violence in the holy city of Karbala.  His decision to “freeze” the Madhi army is really a strategic decision to prepare for geopolitical change.

His “freeze” calculus is based on the expected outcome of the mid-September status report to Congress by US Iraq commander General David Petraeus.  The general is expected to provide a mixed Iraq assessment and as a result Sadr hopes Washington’s power brokers will pressure President Bush to shift his strategy to set a withdrawal timetable and call off the surge.  Both Sadr and his sponsor, Iran, are preparing to take advantage of that change.

Sadr is leveraging himself politically for a larger role in a future government and he is using the “freeze” to transform his militia into a Lebanese-style Hezbollah.  Iran wants to put Iraq under its heel via embedded agents working with Sadr’s Madhi and it will then use Iraq as a platform to expand its influence down the Persian Gulf ’s west coast. 

Sheik Hazim al-Araji, Sadr’s aide, said the goal of the freeze is to “rehabilitate” — bring control and discipline — to the organization, which has been fragmented.   Sadr learned this rehabilitation technique from his mentor, Lebanese Hezbollah general secretary Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.  The Hezbollah leader froze his militia for a couple years to train for war.  In 2006, Nasrallah led his warriors into a tough 34-day war with Israel. 

Working with Hezbollah started with Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr, who mentored Nasrallah.  Moqtada has developed a similar relationship with Nasrallah and recently told The Independent, a British paper, "We have formal links with Hezbollah…. We copy Hezbollah in the way they fight and their tactics, we teach each other and we are getting better through this."

Along with efforts to rebuild his army in Hezbollah’s image Sadr is reworking himself politically by disassociating from Iraq’s failing government. In April, Sadr withdrew six supporters from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s cabinet reportedly because Maliki refused to demand a timetable for the US to pullout of Iraq.  A more believable reason is Maliki’s failure to protect Sadr’s militia from the coalition’s surge, which has killed or captured hundreds of Mahdi fighters.

The Shia are unified in spite of the recent Shia-on-Shia violence that precipitated Sadr’s freeze.  Hassan al-Suneid, a key Shiite lawmaker from al-Maliki’s Dawa party asserts the fighting “is mostly a case of political jockeying. Everyone wants to be seen as Iraq’s hero and the deliverer to win a larger popular following."

No doubt Sadr needs to do some “political jockeying” to bolster his position with other Shiite power brokers.  Specifically, the Mahdi’s Karbala battles were with Badr Organization members, the militia arm of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest Shiite political party.  SIIC’s chief is the leading candidate to replace al-Maliki, Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi.  Mending ways with SIIC is a challenging reach across social lines but a political necessity for the ambitious Sadr. The Supreme Council tends to represent middle- and upper-class Shiites and Sadr’s support is prima rily among the poor.

Sadr is a nationalist who understands the political popularity of opposing the “occupiers” which explains his battles with coalition forces.  Since the US began its security surge in February, Sadr has launched a counter-surge with Iran’s help aimed at America’s growing anti-war sentiment hoping to precipitate a US withdraw.

Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard has successfully fueled the Shia counter-surge.  In July, Shiite militiamen staged three-quarters of the attacks that killed and wounded US forces said Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the Multinational Corps-Iraq commander.  The number of Iranians working with the Shia militia is in dispute but Major General Rick Lynch, the US commander south of Baghdad, said over 50 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Qods (Jerusalem) Force are believed to be directing, facilitating or supporting attacks in his area of operations.

Not surprising, “Iran supports all groups, from small to large.  They want to play on the divisions of Shiites and want to control all the strings,” explained Mustafa al-Ani, an analyst with Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.  This clarifies why Iranian agents can be found working with Badr, Mahdi and break-away Shiite “Special Groups” from Basra in the south to Irbil in the north.

Iraqi Shiite and Iranian ambitions may not materialize without a shift in America’s strategy.  Last week, anticipating Congress’ impatience to withdraw from Iraq and the stepped up Iranian and extremist efforts to promote that outcome, President Bush upped the rhetorical ante by linking an American withdrawal to the real possibility that extremists like Sadr will take over that country.

“I want our fellow citizens to consider what would happen if these forces of radicalism and extremism are allowed to drive us out of the Middle East,” President Bush said. He warned, “The region would be dramatically transformed in a way that could imperil the civilized world.” 

That view is supported in part by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who announced Iran is prepared to fill the vacuum left by the departing “occupiers.”  “The political power of the occupiers is collapsing rapidly,” Ahmadinejad said at a news conference last week. “Soon, we will see a huge power vacuum in the region.  Of course, we are prepared to fill the gap,” Ahmadeinejad said. 

Iran’s long-term geopolitical goal is the remaking of Iraq into a client state much like Lebanon became Syria’s client in the 1970s.  That country was controlled by embedded Syrian intelligence agents and the terrorist Hezbollah exercised political and ideological influence. 

The steps toward making Iraq a client are on course.  Mahdi “Special Groups” are helping with the Shia-ization of Iraq by killing opponents and running non-Shias out.  Tehran is helping remake Mahdi leaders into an Iraqi version of Hezbollah to play both ideological and military roles.  Iran has embedded hundreds of Revolutionary Guards agents throughout Iraq to act as a check on the sources of power.  Once these steps are complete, Tehran will push its influence throughout the Persian Gulf.

America has a choice.  It can accept General Petraeus’ report as a glass half full or half empty.  The half empty crowd will call for a shift in strategy that will play into Sadr’s and Iran’s hands and as President Bush says “imperil the civilized world.”  Accepting Iraq as a glass half full will sustain the surge giving the Iraqi people time to resolve their complex political differences and possibly put that nation on a path toward a better life for them and the rest of us.