The old war was primarily between the Sunni community — which contested the American occupation — and an Iraqi government dominated by the Shia in alliance with the Kurds. That conflict has not ended. But the most important battles likely to be waged in Iraq this year will be within the Shia community. They pit the US-backed Iraqi government against the supporters of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who represents the impoverished Shia masses of Iraq. ‘The Shia are the majority in Iraq and the Sadrists are a majority of this majority,’ a former Shia minister told me. ‘They make up 30 to 40 per cent of the total Iraqi population.’ The population of Iraq is 27 million: on this ex-minister’s calculation, up to ten million of them support Muqtada.
The result of underestimating the fighting power and popular support of the Sadrists was demonstrated at the end of March in the battle for Basra, which was unexpectedly launched by Nouri al-Maliki with his sudden announcement that he was going to end militia rule in the city, Iraq’s second largest. He left the Green Zone in Baghdad to take command, provoking derisive references among Iraqi politicians to ‘General Maliki’. He demanded that militiamen hand over their weapons in three days and promise to reject violence for good; he threatened to crush them if they did not. George Bush called it ‘a defining moment’ for the new Iraq.
For once Bush may be right; though, as when he stood beneath the triumphant slogan ‘Mission Accomplished’ in 2003, he may not understand the seriousness of the fight he is getting into. The Shia community is splitting apart after five years of solidarity. It is a split not just between the government and the militias but between rich and poor. Maliki’s main supporters — his own Dawa party has a small base — are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and its Badr militia. ISCI draws its support primarily from the established Shia clergy, the merchants and the Shia middle class. But ever since ISCI was founded in Iran in 1982 at an early stage in the Iraq-Iran war the party has always lacked popular backing. It won an unsavory reputation for interrogating and torturing Iraqi prisoners: this did not stop it becoming a firm ally of the US occupation after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Muqtada has long tried to avoid an all-out military confrontation with his Shia rivals while they still have the support of the US. On April 7 he even said he would dissolve the Mehdi Army if asked to do so by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other leading Shia clerics in Iran. There is less to this promise than meets the eye. It is easy enough for Iraqi militias to disband, take their weapons with them, and reassemble the following morning.
The new conflict has another aspect: it is also a proxy struggle between the US and Iran. This has been going on ever since the American invasion. But, for all Washington’s attempts to prove otherwise, the Sunni insurgency was primarily supported by the Sunni Arab states to the west of Iraq. The Sadrists have traditionally been highly suspicious of the Iranians. From the beginning, Muqtada was the only Shia leader who has always opposed the US occupation. His militiamen fought two furious battles with US Marines for the Shia holy city of Najaf in April and August 2004. They suffered heavy casualties, but survived; and Muqtada became politically stronger. In public he said he was shifting from military to political resistance. But, in confronting the US, he is forced to look to Iranian political and military support. ‘The Iranians cannot afford to see Muqtada eliminated or seriously weakened,’ says Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi political scientist. In Iran’s battle with the US for influence over the Iraqi Shia, Muqtada plays too important a role for Iran to see him crushed.
Confrontation, and even war, with Iran is politically easier to sell in the US than support for the continuing war inside Iraq. The Democratic Party may want to withdraw troops from Iraq but its leaders try to outdo each other in condemning Iran. General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, has been blaming Iran as the hidden hand behind the latest fighting in Baghdad and Basra. He dID the same when he appeared before Congress on April 8 to give evidence about why, over the last few months, Iraq has become more and not less violent. He had a lot of explaining to do. With US television showing armed men in the streets, burned-out vehicles and smoke rising over Baghdad and Basra, his claims about the success of the ‘surge’ looked much less convincing than they did at the end of last year.Petraeus says that the number of American soldiers in Iraq should not be reduced below the level they were at before the surge started — which makes his claims of military success look dubious. The 3.2 million Iraqis, one in nine of the population, who fled to Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in Iraq, have not been coming home because they think it is too dangerous for them to do so; they are right.
I drove around central Baghdad just before the latest round of fighting between the Americans and the Iraqi army against the Mehdi Army. It was a little easier to travel than a year earlier. In the mixed Yarmouk district of the city on the west bank of the Tigris River, the hospital used to be run by the Mehdi Army; Sunni were terrified to go there. Now the militiaman have left and Sunni are going to the hospital again. At an intersection half a mile away there used to be a Sunni-controlled checkpoint: any Shia who was detected at it was killed on the spot and their bodies left lying beside the road. Now the checkpoint has gone. I visited al-Kindi Street, full of doctors’ offices and coffee shops: now, once more, there are people in the street.
But the revival of city life is never necessarily lasting: things, I thought, could change within hours. I remembered Beirut during the Lebanese civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s: there would be lulls in the fighting for weeks or months on end and Hamra Street in the centre of Ras Beirut would once again be filled with bustling shoppers and the beaches would be crowded. The Lebanese would say dolefully that nothing was solved and the fighting would begin sooner or later: they were always right. In the case of Baghdad this March the lull ended sooner than expected. I had taken a look at the luxury shops in the al-Mansur district — many were open — but a few days later a friend was walking there when several four-wheel drives with darkened windows appeared. He assumed they were carrying senior government officials — but then the windows were rolled down and Mehdi Army militiamen opened fire, killing one policeman and wounding two others.
I spent a night in al-Khadamiyah, an ancient Shia district centred on a Shia shrine surrounded by shops selling gold jewellery and cheap restaurants for pilgrims. Some Shia friends suggested I come with them to the shrine; if anybody asked who I was, they advised me to say I was a Turk. This seemed a dangerous idea: we gave it up as we approached the shrine and saw the tight security. We went to see Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr, a relative of Muqtada of moderate views, who was giving his blessings to Shia dignitaries, and we spent the night in a hotel which is, in effect, his guesthouse. There were plenty of soldiers and police in the streets but I would not have stayed if I had not been under the protection of the Ayatollah. Again the appearance of calm was deceptive. Two weeks later American helicopters were bombarding Mehdi Army positions in al-Khadamiyah.
Fighting between ISCI and the Sadrists has been increasing over the past year but local turf wars had never previously spilled over into all of Shia Iraq. As the Iraqi army started to advance in Basra at the end of March it became clear that Maliki’s offensive was targeted solely against the Mehdi Army. It did not touch the other two main militias in Basra, the Badr Organisation and Fadhila, a Sadrist splinter group powerful in the oilfields. Iraqis were not persuaded by Maliki’s argument that his aim was to eliminate criminal gangs in Basra. Banditry is obviously rife: a businessman friend told me that, to move a container from Umm Qasr port near Basra to Arbil in northern Iraq, he had recently paid $500 in transport fees and $3000 in bribes. Given that government officials in Baghdad seldom do anything without a bribe, Maliki’s claim that he would end criminality in Basra was never going to be convincing.
That air of fantasy surrounded all Maliki’s demands. The government had about 15,000 troops and the same number of policemen in Basra, but they were never going to penetrate the narrow alleyways in the sprawling slums in the north and west of the city. In most cases they did not even try. Muqtada’s forces responded, as they have in the past when facing a single attack, by spreading the battle to Baghdad and every other Shia city and town where their forces are strong. Local Sadrists were soon telling Iraqi police and soldiers at checkpoints in and around Sadr City — often referred to as a district of Baghdad though in reality a twin city with a population of two million — to get out and go home. Instead of militiamen handing over their weapons to the Iraqi security forces, Iraqis found they were watching television pictures of Iraqi police surrendering their weapons — and receiving a sprig of olive and a Koran in return — from clerics supporting Muqtada.
There were other humiliations for the government. For months the main Iraqi spokesman for the surge — its official Iraqi name is the Baghdad Security Plan — has been Tahsin al-Shaikhly. He regularly appeared on television to claim that security was improving, electricity supplies becoming more plentiful and life in Baghdad generally getting easier. Two days after Maliki’s offensive began, al-Shaikhly was kidnapped. According to eyewitnesses, the kidnappers — al-Shaikhly himself tells a slightly different story — were uniformed Iraqi police commandos driving a dozen Toyota Land Cruisers. They shot dead al-Shaikhly’s three bodyguards, set fire to his house and took him to a safe house from which he was allowed to telephone a television station in order to call on Maliki not to attack the Mehdi Army.
Why did the Iraqi army fail? Training a new army has been at the centre of British and American policy for the last four years. At checkpoints in Baghdad these days, Iraqi soldiers now look better armed; they use modern communications equipment and wear bullet-proof vests. A few years ago Iraqi soldiers were driving around Baghdad in ageing white pick-up trucks that were previously used to carry cabbages and cauliflowers to market; now they have second-hand American Humvees. Well-paid by Iraqi standards, and backed up by US air power, the army was expected to give a better account of itself. Yet, in gun battles in towns and cities across southern Iraq, the army either failed to fight or was driven back by the militiamen. Four days into Maliki’s offensive, the Mehdi Army controlled three-quarters of Basra and half of Baghdad. To prevent a complete rout, American helicopters and attack aircraft started to take an increasing part in the fighting. The isolated British soldiers at Basra airport — 4,100 were stationed there — fired their artillery in support of beleaguered Iraqi army units. A curfew in Baghdad caused resentment because people had been taken by surprise by the outbreak and had not, as they usually do when they see a crisis coming, stocked up on food and supplies.
As the Iraqi army began to fail the Americans moved quickly to prop it up. Air controllers to marshal air strikes were sent to Iraqi army units. A team of senior American advisers was sent to Basra. This may explain why Muqtada agreed to a ceasefire. The Mehdi Army had already shown it could fight off the Iraqi army and police, but the Americans might be a different matter. Even so, the short war between Muqtada and the government was revealing as to who really holds power in Iraq. A delegation of Shia leaders went to Iran. They talked to Muqtada in the holy city of Qom, and to General Qassem Sulaymani, the head of the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who oversees Iranian involvement in Iraq. He has long been an American bête noir and last year US special forces tried to kidnap him during an official visit to the Kurdish president. Maliki seems to have been told of the agreement only after it was reached, but its terms were that the Mehdi Army would not give up its arms, the government offensive would stop and militia members would no longer be arrested without warrants. The Americans, who normally react furiously to any sign of Iranian interference in Iraq, said nothing about the fact that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were negotiating peace terms between the government and its enemies.
The Americans said nothing because the abortive attack on Basra was, for them, a nightmare. The claim that the surge was the first step in restoring peace to |Iraq was exposed as a myth. American military casualties might be down — but some two thousand Iraqis were killed in March. American politicians ran for cover. While I was in Baghdad in March, Senator John McCain visited, at the same time as Vice-President Dick Cheney. Both expressed confidence that security was improving. McCain happily told CNN that Muqtada’s ‘influence has been on the wane for a long time’. Three weeks later, McCain was denying he had ever said such a thing; what he had said, he insisted, was that ‘he was still a major player and his influence is going to have to be reduced and gradually eliminated.’ Given that Muqtada is the most powerful Shia leader, and that his militiamen had just shown they could defeat the Iraqi army, this would mean that McCain, if elected president, would fight a war with Iraq’s 17 million Shia.
By this time, American generals and politicians were saying that they had known nothing about Maliki’s disastrous offensive until the last minute — conveniently forgetting that the Americans had been urging Iraqi prime ministers to attack the Mehdi Army since 2004. It was the failure of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the previous Iraqi prime minister, to initiate such an attack that turned the Americans against him. Four years ago, Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Iraq, was demanding that Iraqi ministers refer to the Mehdi Army as ‘Muqtada’s militia’. Bremer called him an Iraqi Hitler in the making and made a disastrous attempt to eliminate him in April 2004, an attempt that was similar in many ways to Maliki’s offensive on Basra last month. Bremer too grossly underestimated Muqtada: his supporters took over most of southern Iraq in a few days.
The Iraqi government, ISCI, the Kurds and the Americans all felt threatened by Muqtada’s men. The Green Zone was coming under daily fire from Sadr City. ISCI in particular wants to defeat the Sadrists before the provincial elections in October, in which it is expected to do badly and the Sadrists well. The government dismissed soldiers who had refused to fight in the March campaign and is reported to have recruited 25,000 tribal levies. The Americans have long been hoping to repeat their triumph in Anbar province in 2007, when Sunni tribal leaders allied themselves with the US against al-Qaida in Iraq. Maliki’s advisers felt that if the Iranians had not interfered then the army might have given a better account of itself. But from the Sadrist point of view the humiliation of the government was almost too complete. The Sadrists admitted that they were becoming isolated. ‘A decision has been taken,’ Maliki said in early April. The Sadrists will ‘no longer have a right to participate in the political process, or take part in the upcoming election, unless they end the Mehdi Army’.
The statement was hypocritical: the Kurdish peshmerga and ISCI’s Badr Organisation are both militias that have been effectively incorporated into the Iraqi army and police. But the Sadrists were in a difficult position. Shia solidarity was breaking down. Muqtada has always been good tactician. He called a million person demonstration for 9 April, the fifth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein, to demand an end to the occupation. ‘He needs,’ an Iraqi observer said, ‘to show that his movement’s popularity is still as great as its military strength.’
Patrick Cockburn is the Ihe author of "Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq."