Diary

Patrick Cockburn

A new struggle is beginning in Iraq. The most important battles likely to be waged 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. ‘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 calculation, as many as ten million 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 when Nouri al-Maliki announced 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 by Iraqi politicians to ‘General Maliki’. He demanded that militiamen hand over their weapons within three days and promise to reject violence; and he threatened to crush them if they didn’t. George Bush called it ‘a defining moment’ for the new Iraq.

This time Bush may be right; although, once again, 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 has lacked popular support ever since it was founded in and by Iran in 1982, early in the Iraq-Iran war. That it had acquired an unsavoury reputation for interrogating and torturing prisoners 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 7 April he even said he would dissolve the Mehdi Army if asked to do so by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and 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. But this time Muqtada’s enemies seem convinced they can crush his movement for good.

This conflict also marks a new chapter in the proxy struggle between the US and Iran that has been going on ever since the American invasion. But, for all Washington’s attempts to prove otherwise, the insurgency was primarily supported by the Sunni Arab states to the west of Iraq. Although Muqtada is the only Shia leader who has opposed the US occupation consistently from the start, the Sadrists have traditionally been highly suspicious of the Iranians. In April and August 2004 his militiamen fought two furious battles with US marines for the Shia holy city of Najaf. Although they suffered heavy casualties, the Mehdi Army survived and Muqtada became politically stronger. He claimed that he was shifting from military to political resistance, but confronting the US now forces him to look for political and military support from Iran. ‘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 eliminated. On the other hand, the Iranians are firm supporters of Maliki and his Shia-dominated government.

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 outdo each other in condemning Iran. General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, has accused Iran of being behind the latest fighting in Baghdad and Basra. He admitted during his appearance before Congress on 8 April that any improvement in security is fragile. Over the last few months, Iraq has become more, not less, violent. 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’ are looking much less convincing than they did at the end of last year. At the same time he 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; they are right.

I drove around central Baghdad just before the latest round of fighting between the Mehdi Army and the Iraqi army and the US. It was a little easier to travel than a year ago. 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 militiamen 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: those suspected of being Shia were killed on the spot and their bodies left beside the road. Now the checkpoint has gone. I visited al-Kindi Street, which was full of doctors’ surgeries and coffee shops, and there were people on the streets. But this could all change within hours, I thought, remembering Beirut during the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, when there were lulls in the fighting for weeks or months on end; 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, that the fighting would begin sooner or later: they were always right. In Baghdad last month the lull ended sooner than I 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 which is 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 told me to say I was a Turk. This seemed a dangerous idea and 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 with moderate views, who was giving his blessings to Shia dignitaries, and spent the night in a hotel which is, in effect, his guesthouse. There were plenty of soldiers and police in the streets but I wouldn’t have stayed had I 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 for 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 exclusively against the Mehdi Army. It did not touch the other two main militias in the city, 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. Banditry is certainly rife: a businessman friend told me that, to move a container from Umm Qasr port near Basra to Arbil in northern Iraq, he had 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 such behaviour in Basra was never very convincing.

An air of fantasy surrounded everything Maliki said. The government had about 15,000 troops and the same number of policemen in Basra, but they were never going to be able to penetrate the narrow alleyways of the sprawling slums in the north and west of the city. In most cases they didn’t even try. Muqtada’s forces responded, as they have in the past when facing an attack in one place, by spreading the battle to Baghdad and every other 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 weapons to the Iraqi security forces, Iraqis were watching TV 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 name in Iraq is the Baghdad Security Plan – has been Tahsin al-Shaikhly. He appeared regularly 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 – al-Shaikhly himself tells a slightly different story – the kidnappers were uniformed Iraqi police commandos driving a dozen vehicles (of a type nicknamed Monicas by Iraqis because of a supposed resemblance to Monica Lewinsky). They shot his three bodyguards dead, set fire to his home and took him to a safe house from which he was allowed to phone a TV 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 they were driving round Baghdad in ageing white pick-up trucks that had been used to take cabbages and cauliflowers to market; now they have second-hand Humvees. Well paid by Iraqi standards, and backed by US air power, the army was expected to perform better. Yet, in towns and cities across southern Iraq, it 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 rout, American helicopters and attack aircraft took an increasing part in the fighting; a team of senior advisers was sent to Basra. The isolated British soldiers at Basra airport – 4100 were stationed there – fired their artillery in support of beleaguered Iraqi army units.

The American moves to prop up the Iraqi army may explain why Muqtada agreed to a ceasefire. The Mehdi Army had shown it could fight off the Iraqi army and police, but the Americans might be a different matter. Even so, the short war was revealing about who really holds power in Iraq. The delegation of Shia leaders who went to Iran to discuss terms for a ceasefire talked to Muqtada in the holy city of Qom, and to Brigadier General Qassem Sulaymani, the head of the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who oversees Iranian activities in Iraq. Sulaymani has long been an American bête noire and last year US special forces tried to kidnap him during an official visit to the Kurdish president. An agreement 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. A covert American-Iranian condominium may be in the making.

The Americans said nothing because the abortive attack on Basra was a nightmare for them. 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 two thousand Iraqis were killed in March. American politicians ran for cover. While I was in Baghdad in March, John McCain visited, at the same time as Dick Cheney. Both expressed confidence that security was improving. McCain told CNN that Muqtada’s ‘influence has been on the wane for a long time’. Two weeks later, he denied he had ever said such a thing; what he had said, he insisted, was that Muqtada ‘was still a major player and his influence is going to have to be reduced and gradually eliminated’.

By this time, American generals and politicians were claiming that they had known nothing about Maliki’s disastrous offensive until the last minute – conveniently forgetting that they 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 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 feel threatened by Muqtada’s men. 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 refused to fight in the March campaign and is reported to have recruited 25,000 tribal levies. Maliki’s advisers claimed that if the Iranians had not interfered 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 thoroughgoing: 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 a good tactician. He called a million person demonstration for 9 April, the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, 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.’ Then Muqtada cancelled the demonstration, saying that troops would not let his supporters assemble. Once again he was trying to postpone a confrontation, but this time his many enemies think they have him cornered. He may have no choice but to fight.

9 April