[Marxism] Iran worried about rapid US pullout

Marvin Gandall marvgandall at videotron.ca
Thu Nov 16 12:20:33 MST 2006

Louis copied:

Iraq pullout talk makes Iran uneasy
Although officially opposed to the American presence, the Islamic Republic
fears the repercussions of a dangerously unstable neighbor.
By Kim Murphy
Times Staff Writer

November 16, 2006
Iran's policy is one factor and US public and congressional opinion is
another but it's long seemed to me that the fate of the US occupation has
depended most on Moktada al-Sadr, the pivotal figure in Iraq, whose Mahdi
Army holds the balance of power. The Sadrist movement expanded greatly after
the battle of Najaf in 2004, and if the Mahdi Army, probably the country's
most powerful militia, had also engaged in systematic urban guerrilla
warfare against US forces, American casualties would be far greater and the
equivocation in US ruling circles about a pullout would be correspondingly
much less pronounced than they are today.

Sadr has denounced the occupation and called for the Americans to leave and
is among the least sectarian of Iraq's politicians but his failure to take
military action is almost certainly because he shares the widespread fear
about the uncertain consequences an American withdrawal - not only as
regards the growing sectarian conflict between the Shias and Sunnis, but
also at it would affect what seems destined to be an inevitable showdown
between his own forces and the SCIRI for leadership of the Shia community.

This complex jockeying for power in Iraq has led al-Sadr into the client
Iraqi government to the point, as the NYT story below notes, that "he and
his top lieutenants are firmly part of the establishment". It would explain
his restraint, detailed below, to strike against both the US forces and the
Sunni insurgents, resulting in the disaffection of growing numbers of his
local commanders and followers in the streets of Baghdad and other centres.

It's clear from the article posted by Louis that the Iranian government is
also taking into account the ambigious response of the two leading
pro-Iranian groups to the US occupation as well as Iran's own strategic
interests. US military and political leaders, meanwhile, continue to be
divided between a dwindling minority who say a precondition for a US
withdrawal requires smashing the Sadrist militia - an impossible task - and
a majority which favours coopting the movement but worries about the
extension of Iranian influence which would accompany the political
ascendency of "Iraq's Hezbollah".

That's the basis for a potential political settlement. The US is looking to
Iran (and Syria) for assurances they can head off a civil war between the
Sunnis and the Shias and that a Shia-dominated Iraq will be unaligned and
still willing to do business with the US after the occupation - in effect, a
"Northern Ireland" solution. The Iranians (and Syrians) also have an
interest in avoiding a civil war and the resulting regional turmoil and in
strengthening their own influence and the resumption of foreign investment
in their economies.

*    *    *

November 13, 2006
Influence Rises but Base Frays for Iraqi Cleric
New York Times

BAGHDAD, Nov. 12 - Few have ever described Moktada al-Sadr, the mercurial
leader of Iraq's mightiest Shiite militia, as a statesman.

Yet there he was last month sitting on a pristine couch with the prime
minister (no longer cross-legged on the floor), making public calls as well
as sending private text messages to aides discouraging sectarianism, and
paying visits to the home of Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric.

For years an angry outsider, Mr. Sadr, 33, has moved deep into the inner
sanctum of the Iraqi government largely because his followers make up the
biggest and most volatile Shiite militia. Now, after more than a year in
power, , a position that has brought new comfort and wealth. That change has
shifted the threat for the American military, which no longer faces mass
uprisings by Mr. Sadr's fighters when it enters their turf.

But the taming of Mr. Sadr has produced a paradox: the more settled he
becomes in the establishment, the looser his grip is over his fighters on
the streets and those increasingly infiltrating the security forces. In the
two years since they fought against American tanks at Mr. Sadr's command,
many have broken away from the confines of compromise that bind him, and
have taken a far more active role in killing, something his supporters say
worries him. He says he is trying to weed them out - 40 were publicly
dismissed last month.

The increasing violence of some of his followers mirrors the overall
unraveling of Iraq, which has become less centrally controlled and far more
criminal since the American invasion in 2003. The situation is one of the
highest priorities for the incoming Democratic-controlled Congress in the
United States.

The Sadrists "are really facing a problem," said one Shiite politician.
"They formed a militia. It expanded. Now each one is a cell. This is the
dangerous thing."

As always with the elusive Mr. Sadr, who has rarely granted interviews to
foreign journalists, it is not clear whether his public pronouncements and
efforts at reform are sincere, or how long they will last. But in Iraq,
power flows from the barrel of a gun, and he, better than anyone, knows

Mr. Sadr's new prominence in politics is partly a result of intense American
and Iraqi efforts. For most of 2004, Iraqi leaders shuttled south of Baghdad
to Najaf, where he lives, to persuade him to get followers in his militia,
the Mahdi Army, to disarm and also to ask him to enter the political
process. Eventually, he did, though many of his followers kept their guns.

Now parties loyal to him control the single largest portion of seats in
Parliament and elevated the prime minister to power. They control five
government ministries.

Mr. Sadr is often described as fickle, image-obsessed and having a short
attention span. But lately, he has cut a more sophisticated image. He rented
and refurbished a large house near his own for guests in Najaf, after
returning from a monthlong trip early this year. It was his second visit
abroad, and he met with princes and kings of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon
and Iran, according to a Shiite politician close to him.

"Now they can sit on couches," instead of rugs, he said. Perhaps most
significant, Mr. Sadr has been paying visits to the son of Iraq's most
senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and apparently
learning the arts of negotiation and compromise.

"Nowadays he's communicating better," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's
national security adviser. "Grand Ayatollah Sistani is trying to bring him
within the fold."

While all this is happening, however, the war has grown far deadlier for
Iraqis on the street, and many of Mr. Sadr's supporters are following a
fresh crop of more militant Mahdi commanders.

It is not that poor, young Shiites no longer follow Mr. Sadr; his image
still adorns concrete walls. Religious rap songs play just as loudly on the
streets of Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad that is
the heart of his support. But Mr. Sadr's new call for calm - one he is
required to make as a part of the Iraqi establishment - is not satisfying to
many, who are deeply angry at sectarian killings by Sunni militias.

"When a worker is killed because he's from Sadr City, what do you expect
from his family?" said a 26-year-old graduate student from Sadr City. "It is
a fact that he will try to take revenge."

One result is a small proliferation of senior militia leaders - a coalition
intelligence official said in September there were at least six - striking
out on their own. One new commander is a fishmonger who goes by the name Abu
Dera, meaning "man of the shield." According to legend, an American tank
fired directly on him and missed.

Although his supporters deny it, Sunnis say Abu Dera is one of the city's
biggest killers, responsible for thousands of murders of Sunnis whose bodies
are surfacing daily in a giant garbage dump less than a mile from his block.
He is often referred to as "the Zarqawi of the Shiites," a reference to Abu
Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed by
American forces last June.

The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who is Shiite, has given the
approval for the American military to arrest him. They have tried and failed
at least twice.

Abu Dera clearly inspires Shiites who want to take the law into their own
hands, or as they see it, carry out justice for Sunni aggression while their
government looks on helplessly.

"Mahdi Army has killed the main insurgent figures," said the 26-year-old in
Sadr City. "It did a favor for the Americans and the government."

The fracturing of Mr. Sadr's militia traces the arc of Iraq's history since
the American invasion. In 2004, the American military was the common enemy,
and Mr. Sadr's followers even joined Sunnis to fight in Falluja. But as
vicious attacks by Sunni militias intensified, perception of the enemy
shifted, and Iraq's two main sects began fighting each other.

One result has been a spectacular spike in killing - the monthly death toll
in the capital has been double the rate of a year earlier - and Mr. Sadr's
militia is being blamed.

At first, Mr. Sadr denied that his forces were responsible. Some Shiite
Iraqi officials have said that many people claim Mahdi affiliations, even
Sunni militants. Whatever the case, the killing has gotten so bad that he
considers it a threat to his power, his supporters say.

"Now he's become very worried," said the politician who had discussed Mr.
Sadr's trip abroad. "The violence has reached this point of being out of
control." Even Mr. Maliki, the prime minister, has noted the predicament.
"We don't know what Mahdi Army means any more," he remarked ruefully to a
Reuters reporter recently.

Mr. Sadr has tried to fashion his organization after Hezbollah, the Lebanese
Shiite militia commanded by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, which showed its
efficiency and unity of purpose during the war with Israel this summer,
instituting exams for new members and dismissing wayward heads of his
offices. In Basra, in the south, he is on his seventh since 2003. But Mr.
Sadr has been thwarted by his undisciplined forces.

Mr. Sadr has disavowed a number of his commanders. At a Friday Prayer last
month, the names of 40 dismissed Mahdi Army commanders were read aloud at a
lectern in front of a sea of men holding umbrellas against the hot sun.
Among them were Hassan Salim, the leader of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, and
Hajj Shimel, a prominent cleric. Abbas al-Kufi, Mr. Sadr's strongman
enforcer, arrived from Najaf to attend the reading.

That public response fits snugly with the agenda of the American military,
which is chipping away at the most corrupt edges of Mr. Sadr's empire
through arrests.

Even though the military has made more than six forays into the area since
early August, including an Oct. 25 attempt to arrest Abu Dera, Mr. Sadr has
been largely silent, and the only repercussions were a few angry public
remarks by Mr. Maliki.

Indeed, the challenge Mr. Sadr presented to the American military in 2004,
when his followers fought tanks in flip-flops, seems to have melted away.

"We have arrested people who in 2004 we would have had to move M1 tanks to
Sadr City to suppress an uprising over," said one intelligence official who
spoke to reporters in September about Mr. Sadr's army. That is in part
because Mr. Sadr is standing by a newly declared truce with the Americans
and also because of the Sadrists' new proximity to power, well-connected
local residents critical of the Mahdi militia say.

During a recent raid, area residents said, $4 million was found in the house
of one militia member.

"Now Mahdi leaders have the money, they have the Parliament," said a
merchant who asked not to be identified for safety reasons. "They do not
want to risk it by fighting. Those who tasted the sweets will never give
them up."

American and Iraqi officials say Iran is also a major financial source.

But while the unraveling of Mr. Sadr's unified militia takes away some
problems for the military, it also creates new ones through the infiltration
of the Iraqi security forces.

"You have more points of entry," said Lt. Col. Eric Schacht, whose soldiers
patrol areas of largely Shiite eastern Baghdad.

American officials have urged Mr. Maliki to take up this problem with Mr.
Sadr and, to some extent, he has. But sectarian divisions have hardened in
politics, and Shiite leaders, incensed at what they say is an American
obsession with militias, have treated Mr. Sadr gently.

"We find his arguments very true," said a Shiite lawmaker, Sami al-Askiri.
"We agree with him."

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