Revolution #126, April 13, 2008

From A World to Win News Service

The failed offensive against Sadr’s Mahdi Army: the U.S, Iraq, and Iran

March 31, 2008. A World to Win News Service. Worse and worse—these are the words that come to mind about what the U.S. has accomplished in Iraq as its occupation heads into its sixth year. The offensive against the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, resulting, so far, in a humiliating defeat for the American-backed government, is another sign of increasing U.S. desperation—and dangerousness.

U.S. domination of Iraq has rested on two political pillars, in addition to the currently 160,000 American soldiers: the Kurdish parties and the Shia clerical and political establishment. Over the last year, since this set-up hasn’t been working, and faced with other necessities, the U.S. has begun to shake those two pillars. Turkey’s incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, with unequivocal U.S. military and political support, undermined and intimidated the two clan-based Kurdish nationalist parties that have been the U.S.’s most reliable allies. At the same time, the U.S. has often simply ignored the government of Prime Minister Maliki, which is held up by both these two pillars. It has organized the so-called “Awakening” movement, under which Sunni tribal leaders (once a core support for Saddam Hussein) and former Saddam officers have been bought and directly brought into the U.S. command structure, as if the Maliki government and Iraqi army didn’t even exist. Some 80,000 such men were put on the U.S. payroll in 2007. Now these moves have been followed by the assault on Sadr’s forces.

That the attack was backed by the U.S. is not really in doubt. U.S. President Bush endorsed it right away, calling Maliki’s offensive “bold,” “a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq,” and “a necessary part of the development of a free society.” (New York Times, March 29) U.S. Vice President Cheney visited Iraq less than a week before the offensive, about the time when preparations began. He must have discussed the matter with Maliki, since the relationship between the Sadr movement and the government was considered the question of the day in Baghdad. Further, despite some attempts to make it look otherwise, it seems that American air and ground forces did much of the fighting against the Mahdi Army. Although government troops helped surround Sadr City, the Shia slum area in the capital named for Moqtada al-Sadr’s famous cleric father, on-the-spot reporting by Sudarsan Raghavan for The Observer (March 30) describes the street-by-street fighting as being almost exclusively between Mahdi Army members and American soldiers, with frequent helicopter gunship support.

In Basra, where Maliki went to personally oversee the invasion of Sadr-friendly neighborhoods, the combat quickly became a stalemate. American aircraft and British artillery killed many, if not most, of the civilians and fighters reported to have died. Washington confirmed that its special forces operated on the ground in Basra. (Reuters, March 30) Fighting took place in many other cities in the south, where thousands of Mahdi Army members from Baghdad fled or were redeployed in the face of American military pressure there.

Maliki put his prestige and future on the line for this battle. Squeezed from both sides (U.S. moves to at least make him less relevant, on the one hand, and the growing isolation of the government and strength of the Mahdi Army on the other), such a gamble may very well have been his most rational move. In the second day of the offensive, he declared the Mahdi Army “worse than al-Qaeda,” and vowed he would never compromise with Sadr or leave Basra until the Mahdi forces were crushed. (Al Jazeera, March 30) He demanded that the Mahdi fighters surrender their weapons within 72 hours. There was no surrender from the Sadr forces. Instead, some government police offered their arms to the Mahdi Army and at least one unit joined up with them rather than fight them. First Maliki changed his mind and extended the deadline another ten days, offering a bounty to Mahdi men who turned in their weapons. Then his government sent emissaries to Iran to cry for help.

An Iranian Revolutionary Guards general—in charge of the same Pasdaran Qods brigade that Bush and his top commander David Petraeus accused of aiding attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq—brokered a political settlement, according to a March 30 McClatchy newswire dispatch. Sadr, currently living and pursuing theological studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom, agreed that his armed men would be withdrawn from the streets. In return, according to that report, Maliki’s representatives—a member of the Dawa Party and the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council—agreed to call off their offensive and release the hundreds of Mahdi commanders and soldiers arrested over the past months. Since then, Iranian radio has carried complaints that the government has not lived up to this accord and instead continued to arrest Mahdi members. Nevertheless, for now, there is a clear winner, although the story is probably far from over. The Sadr forces refused to disarm, which had been the central demand on which Maliki had staked his future.

Worse, for the U.S., an escapade aimed at weakening what American authorities called a pro-Iranian militia ended with an acknowledgement of the Islamic Republic’s authority and power in Iraq. If, as many observers have pointed out, the U.S.’s actions since September 11, 2001, both the increasingly bogged down occupation of Afghanistan and the even more disastrous occupation of Iraq, have strengthened the Islamic Republic of Iran, this latest failed American-invested adventure both reveals the extent to which the U.S. is coming up against Iran politically as well as militarily, and further weakens the empire’s hand.

One obvious question is why the U.S. made this move, despite the warnings and obvious dangers.

Attacking Sadr was not an obvious choice. In 2006, the International Crisis Group, an international advisory group to imperialist governments made up of former top policy makers and leaders, issued a report whose title asked, “Iraq’s Maqtada Al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?” ( Its point was that the occupation very much needed Sadr’s movement to help stabilize the American-backed government, which would have trouble surviving without it, and that the U.S. and Maliki should work carefully to make this happen and not make any rash moves against Sadr. In a series of reports since then, the ICG tried to lay out a detailed road map for U.S.-Sadr cooperation. It is as if Bush and his cronies, and the Maliki government dependent on them, read that map backwards and did exactly the opposite. Instead of drawing the Sadr forces more deeply in to the government established in 2005, they acted with unrelenting hostility toward them. (Also see the ICG’s “Where Is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra,” June 2007; “Shiite Politics in Iraq: the Role of the Supreme Council,” November 2007; and “Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists and the Surge,” February 2008.)

Here some background analysis of the political forces involved in Iraq is needed. Ironically, all of the Iraqi organizations the U.S. depends on have deep ties with the Islamic Republic—except for those associated with Saddam’s Baath Party, which, in U.S. eyes, may be one of their two great merits. (The other is that they were able to rule Iraq, a trick the U.S. and its Iraqi allies haven’t achieved yet.) The Kurdish parties and especially Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, despite their much-proclaimed secularism, have long been friendly to the Iranian mullah regime. Prime Minister Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, Iraq’s oldest Islamist political organisation, was headquartered in Iran. It worked with Iranian security agencies and is said to have been directly involved in bombing attacks on American soldiers, a fact that the Bush government never fails to overlook. But the Dawa Party is very small and weak; it seems that he was chosen prime minister as a compromise between the two main Shia players, Sadr and the party now called the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

When the Supreme Council was founded in Iran in 1982, Ayatollah Khomeini sent his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to attend as his representative. It grew under the protection of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, recruiting from among captured Iraqi soldiers held in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and fighting alongside the Iranian military against Saddam’s army. Yet the Supreme Council, according to the ICG’s analysis, has since moved away from its ideological commitment to Khomeini’s concept of clerical rule and the religious authority of Khomeini and later Khamenei. It has tried to distance itself politically from the Iranian regime, becoming quite pro-American (its leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim was “courted and feted by the Bush White House,” to quote the ICG), even while hesitating to completely cut its ties with Iran.

The Sadr movement and its Mahdi Army, formed in the name of protecting Shia interests in the wake of the U.S. invasion, just as ironically, has been critical of the Persian Iranian regime on an Arab chauvinist and nationalist basis and has not, at least in the past, shared all of its ideas or recognized its religious authority. Yet it seems to have moved closer to the Islamic Republic out of a combination of ideological reasons and the closing up of the political space it had carved out of the Iraqi status quo. Its relationship with the U.S. has been ambiguous and far from uncompromising. When its men rose in arms in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf in 2004, their demands involved recognition and rights for the Sadr movement, not the overthrow of the government or the end of the occupation. Although they ended up fighting two rounds of battles with the U.S. armed forces that year, they tried to avoid frontal confrontation and mainly fought defensively against attempts to detain and disarm them.

The Sadr movement is widely defined as the only real mass-based movement in Iraq (aside from Kurdistan), especially compared to the supremely unpopular Supreme Council, seen as a stooge first for Iran and then the U.S. While the Supreme Council draws its support and legitimacy from the merchants in Baghdad and the Shia holy cities and the mainstream religious establishment, the Sadr movement is based among youth from the Shia “urban underclass” in Baghdad, as well as in Basra and other cities of the south from where these families came. (It would be wrong to conclude, however, that what class a party or movement draws its members from means that it necessarily represents the interests of that class, or its “natural” worldview. The Shia intelligentsia was the mainstay of the Baathist Party early on, when, long before Saddam, it was a secular nationalist movement, and the Shia “urban underclass” the main social base of the Iraqi Communist Party.)

The ICG’s main argument has been that one of Sadr’s proclaimed goals—a Sharia (Islamic law-based) government—was achieved by the Iraqi constitution written in 2005 under U.S. supervision, and that his party would be vital to the continued survival of the government established at that time. Indeed, that was the case for several years. Sadr’s people served as parliamentarians and ministers and gave that government much of the little legitimacy it has enjoyed. He pulled his ministers out in September 2007, at the height of the U.S. escalation euphemistically called the “surge,” apparently believing that it was aimed primarily against him. It seems that at least much of the friction between the U.S. armed forces and the Mahdi Army has come from American intolerance of and pressure on Sadr’s forces, including repeated raids and arrests. When Mahdi members fought with Supreme Council men in the streets of Najaf last year over control of the Shia shrines, Sadr used the occasion to call for something more than a truce—an end to all “armed appearances” by his men, whether in conflict with the government and Supreme Council or the Americans. In February of this year, not long before Maliki launched his offensive, Sadr renewed that order.

Sadr’s opposition to the Maliki plan to divide Iraq into three autonomous regions (and perhaps eventually three countries) does have political content.But beyond that, many commentators, including the ICG, judge hisnationalist and occasionally anti-American stance as more flexible than the rhetoric might make it seem. Sadr’s call for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal has been coupled with a tacit acceptance of the occupation for now, in what could be a strategy of trying to avoid conflict with the U.S., to build up power and await a different situation. Even at the height of the U.S.-backed offensive against them, a senior Sadr aide, said, the “Mahdi Army is fighting for recognition and not for useless purposes” (in other words, trying to topple the government or confront the occupation). (The Observer, March 30)

In the past two years, especially, the Mahdi Army’s direct clashes with the U.S. Army, and, if the American authorities are to be believed, use of explosives against U.S. vehicles, have occurred in the context of a Sadrist campaign to take over large parts of Baghdad, on both banks of the Tigris river, beyond its original eastern suburban slum base.

This largely successful effort has meant a neighborhood-by-neighborhood process of “defending” Shias against (real) attempts by Sunni groups to intimidate them or drive them out, in turn driving out the Sunnis, and through this process establishing their own military, political, and considerable economic power. Despite Sadr’s claims to stand above religious conflicts and for the nation, including sending food and supplies to Sunni Falluja during the American siege, and most recently, during the offensive against him, calling for Iraqis to unite against “the armies of darkness,” his movement has been inextricably tied in with gangster “protection” of Shias, ethnic cleansing against Sunnis, and religious rule with all of its ugly features, including a suppression of the free movement of women that visitors say makes Iran look almost secular by comparison.

From his residence in Iran, Sadr still takes pains to distinguish Iranian and Iraqi political interests, a stance which, whatever its motivation, goes well with his claims to represent all Moslems, Shia and Sunni, and the Iraqi nation. (Al Jazeera, March 30) Yet there are elements that put him close to the Iranian ruling mullahs ideologically, including the family background that enabled him to quickly rise to prominence, a well-known clerical lineage known for its advocacy of political Islam, unlike the predominant Iraqi Shia establishment that kept an uneasy peace with the Saddam regime; his current religious studies meant to combine his political authority with a religious authority that as a junior Islamic scholar he now lacks (and which the other two main Shia parties, with no clerical leadership of their own, lack entirely); and his advocacy not just of Sharia law as the basis for government but the highest worldly authority invested in the Islamic scholar (wilayat al faqih, or supreme rule of the jurisprudent), a doctrine associated with Khomeini and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Sadrists are not a nationality-based movement like the Kurdish parties or simply yet another manifestation of “identity politics”: the importance and power of Islamic ideology in defining and driving this movement should not be underestimated.

All this does not mean that there is any truth to Maliki and Bush’s assertions that their war against the Mahdi Army has been directed against sectarian gangsterism. The Supreme Council has done exactly the same kinds of things. The only difference is that its sectarian massacres, torture on an industrial scale, extortion, and other filthy acts were committed through the official institutions they control, especially the Ministry of the Interior. As the ICG starkly puts it, “Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. But before and beyond that, Iraq has become a failed state—a country whose institutions, and with them, any semblance of national cohesion—have been obliterated.” The U.S. shattered Iraq militarily, but the system of class alliances and government that will rule in the future is far from settled. Eventually it must be settled, since the occupation cannot stay at the same level forever, if only because the U.S. has other wars to fight. Because of this, and because the U.S., in order to stay on top, prizes and constantly encourages religious sectarianism and ethnic strife, the country is being torn apart by religious and ethnically-based armed organizations looking out for the interests of the power elite of their particular “identity.” Even the government is a shifting coalition of interest groups, and its security forces and even to some extent the army are just one more narrowly-based militia in uniform, run by Supreme Council head Hakim.

Each of these groups is based on real, if narrow, interests. Most of them cannot be considered puppets, even when they are taken in hand by and serve the occupiers, but the same narrowness of interests and outlook makes them all highly susceptible to manipulation by the U.S. and others. Even the most consistently anti-American Sunni fundamentalist forces, including the so-called al-Qaeda in Iraq, are part of this self-feeding dynamic of rivalry and mutually reinforcing reactionary interests and thus help shore up the occupation even as they seek to overthrow it.

One thing that has confused many observers is the fighting between parties backed by Iran. Wouldn’t Iran oppose this armed rivalry? The Iranian authorities themselves have denied claims that they would do anything to weaken the Maliki government, to which, they complain, the U.S. is giving less than enthusiastic and full support. “Why should we undermine a government in Iraq that we support more than anybody else?” an Iranian diplomat asked. (“The Victor?,” Peter Galbraith, New York Review of Books, October 11, 2007)The same could be said from the angle of the U.S, which certainly has need, if not affection, for both Shia parties if its government is to stand on anything but naked American bayonets.

From the point of view of the Iranian regime, their large hand helping to prop up an American-dependent regime is a form of both collusion and contention with the U.S. The Iranian and U.S. ruling classes have some common interests in stable reactionary rule in Iraq, and even in the use of Shia religious fundamentalism as a prop for that rule. If the resulting government is friendly to Iran, as Maliki’s government has been, all the better; at any rate, it relieves Iran of the pressure it was under during Saddam’s rule (and the U.S. has conveniently removed the hostile Taliban regime on the other side of Iran). This situation allows the Islamic Republic to make the U.S. recognize, at least de facto, that it needs the Iranian regime, and that it can’t afford to push Iran too far. This may be part of why the Supreme Council has been able to enlist under the American flag while not cutting its ties with Iran completely, and why the U.S. has tolerated that. (According to the ICG, the Supreme Council has occasionally served as a middleman in U.S.-Iranian negotiations.) This is also one reason for the Sadr forces’ long-standing and continuing impatience with Iran.

At the same time, Iran does not shy away from using military force. The U.S. has made much of the advanced explosive devices Iran has allegedly supplied to the Mahdi Army. U.S. General Petraeus blamed Iran for the accurate and therefore presumably advanced mortars and rockets that began raining down from the east (from the direction of Sadr City) on the Green Zone, the former Saddam palace that is the heart of the American occupation and seat of its Iraqi government, on the eve of the planned assault on the Mahdi Army. After more than a week of barrages “qualitatively different” from those of the past, the mood in the most heavily fortified compound on the planet was described as “a sense of hunkering down for a sustained period of time.” (BBC, March 24; Associated Press, March 27) American military and political authorities have said that even while the Iranian regime supports Maliki, it also supplies weapons to groups like the Mahdi Army and its spin-offs because it wants to see the U.S. tied up and weakened militarily. Although imperialist spokespeople never admit it, this is an implicit admission that Iran has good reason to fear that it will be the U.S.’s next target. A number of observers have pointed out that in the event of a U.S. frontal attack on Iran, the Mahdi Army might feel the time has come for an all-out confrontation with the occupiers.

If the U.S. were not preparing for a confrontation with Iran, then it would see the Mahdi Army differently. Many of the things the U.S. is doing in the region, from Israel and Lebanon to Turkey and Iraq, make little sense except in that light. This includes the various alliances it enters into in occupied Iraq itself. It is probably not just stupidity that made the Bush regime drive the Sadr movement into ever-increasing hostility rather than trying to draw them in with the rest of its very junior partners in crime. The more the U.S. finds itself thwarted politically in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, to the profit of Iran, the more it might feel compelled to shoot its way out of an impossible situation by moving militarily on the Islamic Republic.

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