Apparently Two Nights Ago There Was

*Apparently two nights ago there was a major battle in the Mashtal quarter of New Baghdad between US troops and Arab volunteers who had gone there to fight them from all over the Arab world. The word is that 3 US soldiers were killed, but there are no details. – Asharq al-Awsat

*Iran has allowed some 2000 armed men of various factions to infiltrate back into Iraq, according to Ali Nourizadeh of Asharq al-Awsat. These include Badr Brigade fighters of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as well as some militiamen loyal to the al-Da`wa Party. In addition, several hundred armed members of the Quds Brigade have been sent over, as well. These fighters belong to families of Iraqi Shiites of Iranian heritage, who were expelled to Iran in the tens of thousands by Saddam. Many of their families had been in Iraq for decades, and some for centuries. Many of these infiltrators speak Arabic with an Iraqi accent.

He says the fighters were given arms and loaded down with dollars by Iranian hardliners before they set out. They were instructed to take over 11 major towns and cities with a largely Shiite population, implementing rule by “revolutionary committee” (Persian: Komiteh) as happened in Iran after the Feb. 1979 Khomeini revolution. He says they came in and spread around money to the Shiite seminary students, getting them on their side. He warns that a couple of units who came in with deputy SCIRI leader Abd al-`Aziz al-Hakim had been trained in guerrilla and suicide bombing tactics.

This account strikes me as inaccurate in detail and overly schematic. It may have been influenced by a similar report of Debka, an unreliable Israeli site that often puts out disinformation. For instance, in Nasiriya the US Marines are in control of the city quite firmly. The Al-Da`wa Party appears to be hugely influential there politically, but there hasn’t been effective al-Da`wa militia activity, and al-Da`wa leaders have fretted that SCIRI and the Sadr Movement are outflanking them elsewhere because they do have militias. Likewise, in Amara (pop. 340,000), there appears to have been a spontaneous local Shiite revolt against the Baath during the last days of fighting. Last I heard it is in local Shiite hands. A reporter said on April 24 that there were rumors in Amara of Iranian infiltration, but the local British official said he had seen no sign of it. SCIRI fighters do not control Najaf or Karbala or Kufa, as Nourizadeh implies. The Sadr Movement militia seems to dominate Kufa, whereas tribesmen loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani came in to restore order to Najaf. So, I don’t doubt Badr Brigade and Quds Brigade infiltration to some places, but it hasn’t resulted in the takeover of 11 towns and cities. Indeed, the Badr Brigade appears to have been chased out of Sadr City, the biggest center of Shiite population.

Allowing these forces to cross the border (which cannot in any case be easily policed, since it is long and cuts through rugged territory) breaks a gentleman’s agreement between Tehran and Washington reached during the past two or three months. Nourizadeh suggests that SCIRI in particular had been seeking a way to live peacefully with the “new American neighbor,” and its non-confrontational policy may have been over-ruled by hardliners in Iran. I personally disagree with this analysis, though. I think SCIRI leader Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim feels that the US stabbed him in the back when they decided not to allow the expatriate organizations to come in and form a provisional government. Zalmay Khalilzad and Paul Wolfowitz suddenly announced that Iraq would be US-ruled for an indefinite period of time. I think SCIRI infiltration is revenge on al-Hakim’s part for what he sees as a betrayal. He has warned the US several times against wearing out its welcome.

*Someone replied to my recent article on how Shiite religious militias have been taking over towns and city quarters by saying that only 20% of the Shiites support the religious parties. And since Iraq is 60% Shiite, only 12% really are in question here, and they can hardly take over the country. But my argument is not about numbers. I cannot see how anyone can know the percentage of support for these various factions, anyway. It is not as if there has been scientific polling. My concern is this. There is a militia of 6,000 or so armed men, mostly loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, which is patrolling the eastern Shiite slums of Baghdad, now called Sadr City. Some 2 million people live there. Guys, that is something like 8% of the population right there.

It is not that everyone in Sadr City supports Muqtada. But if you had town meetings to elect delegates to anything, surely the very fact of the control of these quarters by this militia is going to affect the outcome of the selection process. Sadr City is likely to be represented by people from the Sadr Movement. The same thing is true in a place like Baquba, a city of 280,000 (i.e. a fairly big urban center for Iraq–this would be like a city of 3 million in the US, proportionally, e.g. Chicago). Last I heard, the hardline Badr Brigade had infiltrated this city near Iran and taken it over. Who is Baquba going to select as a delegate to any decision-making body. And, how exactly are these militias going to be disarmed or rolled back? Are you going to send US troops into Sadr City? Shoot into the resulting crowds? This is a nightmare in the making.

Here is what James Rupert of Newsday writes from Sadr City: ‘In the past decade, Hussein’s rule and international economic sanctions pushed Saddam City from poverty to misery. Families supplement their diet by combing Baghdad’s vast garbage dumps. The community’s history and its village roots mean that “many [of its] people have had no education. And they have no experience of getting along with other groups,” said Adel, an elderly, educated Shiite from an old Baghdad family. “So it is easy for them to become extremists.” ‘

In Kut when Sayyid `Abbas Fadil came in from Iran with an armed retinue and set himself up in the mayor’s mansion, the Marines’ first thought was to “just kill him.” But when they moved on him, a crowd of 1200 formed and they had to back off. Sayyid Abbas’s followers are certainly a minority in Kut (pop. 380,000), but they are nevertheless a force to reckon with in its politics. So, my worry is that Rumsfeld, by sending in such a light force with limited capacity to assert control of urban areas (I don’t think there are even any troops in Baquba), gave an opening for these Shiite militias to take over. They have enough popularity that moving against them will be dangerous.

Remember that when the US went into Somalia, Aidid was an ally. But then the US cut him out of the deal when they decided they had to tame the warlords. And that, my friends, is how you got Mogadishu and Black Hawk Down. The US can’t afford to cut out the more radical Shiite forces like Muqtada al-Sadr, but so far has no framework for dealing with his militias or for drawing him into normal politics. Things are not hunky dory in Iraq, people, and while Jay Garner may or may not be able to deal with this problem, it isn’t that there is no problem.