Al-Sadr Threatens Mahdi Army Revival if US Troops Stay

Al-Hayat writing in Arabic reports that nationalist Shiite clergyman Muqtada al-Sadr threatened on Saturday to revive his Mahdi Army militia if US troops tried to stay in Iraq past December 31, 2011. He said his fighters would return to carrying arms.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi protesters, mainly his supporters, gathered beginning early in the morning on Saturday in Beirut Square and along Palestine Street in Baghdad, in a huge rally to both observe and condemn the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The crowds would likely have been even larger, but Iraqi security forces closed off thoroughfares and bridges leading to the area of the city where the rally was staged. The neighborhood was chosen because a US base is nearby. Protests were also held in other cities in the vicinity of US bases, demanding an immediate departure of the American military.

Iran’s PressTV has video:

Rallies were held at the airport in Ninewa Province; in front of the K-1 Air Force base in Kirkuk, before Imam Ali Base in Dhi Qar, which is used by the US Air Force; in Anbar in front of the al-Asad Base, and in Basra at the international airport. Similar sites were targeted for demonstrations in other provinces.

Muqtada’s threat was a shot across the bow of the Obama administration, which has shown interest in recent weeks in maintaining a US military presence in Iraq past the end of this year. Gareth Porter reports that the Obama team has been spooked by the widespread unrest in the Middle East and have reconsidered their determination to get out of Iraq on a short timetable. With a tense and polarized situation in Bahrain after the Saudis sent in troops to support the Sunni monarchy against his majority-Shiite subjects (most of them demanding a constitutional monarchy), the future of the US headquarters of the Fifth Fleet in the Oil Gulf is in doubt. The Arab Shiites of the Gulf are boiling with anger, which could give Shiite Iran an opening to make a bid for greater influence with them. The Obama team seems to think that for the US to abruptly pick up stakes in Iraq at this juncture would threaten the security architecture of the Eastern Arab world and perhaps even the security of petroleum exports from the region, which holds nearly two-thirds of the world’s proven petroleum reserves.

Thus, Vice President Joe Biden, who has the Iraq portfolio at the White House, called Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday, apparently to pressure him to extend the US troop presence. The Status of Forces Agreement agreed to by the Iraqi parliament and the Bush administration in fall, 2008, stipulates that all US troops should depart the country by the end of 2011, but allows the Iraqis to request an extension. Washington interprets ‘the Iraqis’ to be the Prime Minister (apparently on analogy to the imperial presidency and the way that Congress has been marginalized in international affairs in the US). Iraqi parliamentarians, however, insist that an extension would have to be agreed to by parliament. The Biden phone call was followed by a visit from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, during which he offered to extend the troop presence but pointed to the short time window within which the request would have to be made. (The US is down to 47,000 or so troops in Iraq and would have to start a steep drawdown soon if there is no extension).

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Muhammad Salman, a member of Parliament who belongs to the largely secular and Sunni Iraqiya ticket (the largest single party in parliament, but which was unable to form a coalition yielding 51% of seats), said that his party would insist on a popular referendum on any extension. (Al-Iraqiya in the past at least has been relatively positive toward the US, but it has become more Sunni over time and many Sunnis are Iraqi nationalists uncomfortable with the American presence). The SOFA was supposed to be passed by referendum, but one has never been held.

The problem for the Obama administration is that Iraq still has no Minister of Defense, with PM al-Maliki holding that portfolio himself until he can find a compromise candidate acceptable both to his and the other major parties. Some high-ranking Iraqi generals are Kurds, who desperately want the Americans to stay, but whose views in this regard are distinctly ethnic (Kurds in the north were massacred by Arab troops in 1988, and as non-Arab Iraqis with substantial autonomy from the state, they fear that a complete US departure would leave them vulnerable to being pulled back into Baghdad’s orbit and subordinated to the majority Arabs). There are thus no credible independent voices among the new Arab elite who could give al-Maliki cover if he tried to keep the Americans around.

The situation, Porter says, is further complicated by the Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council flexing of muscles to assert Sunni privilege over Shiite Islam in the Gulf. The action has angered Iraq’s Shiites, produced big rallies, and pushed al-Maliki closer to Iran. Many Shiite Iraqis, now in power, are afraid of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, accusing them sometimes of having funded Sunni fundamentalist guerrillas to set off vast numbers of bombs and sniping campaigns in 2005-2007 (it is unlikely that the two governments were implicated, though there are a lot of crazy Gulf millionaires who might have sent some money for such purposes). If al-Maliki now needs Iran more to offset a militant pro-Sunni Saudi Arabia and UAE, well, Iran would likely have a price for support, which would be an end to the US presence in Iraq.

Al-Maliki’s increasing willingness to do Iran’s bidding may be behind the strong response on Friday by Iraqi troops to attacks by the Mujahidin-i Khalq members at Camp Ashraf. Iran (indeed, the US State Department) views them as a terrorist organization that has set off many bombs inside Iran. The camp is there because Saddam Hussein was using this political cult, which traditionally combined Marxism and Muslim fundamentalism, to harass Iran.

Given the new frictions between Sunnis and Shiites over Bahrain and Saudi intervention, and given that al-Maliki increasingly needs Iranian support and has since last fall depended heavily on Muqtada al-Sadr for his ruling majority in parliament, the likelihood that al-Maliki can and will try to please the Obama administration by requesting an extension of the American presence is probably low.

Given that Gates is an old-time Realist in the Bush I mold, you wonder whether his heart is even in this sudden quixotic turn of Obama and his officials to wanting to retain a toehold in Iraq. It isn’t practical. Even if al-Maliki acquiesced and tried to implement an extension by fiat, it would likely cause his government to fall, and would also provoke a constitutional crisis with the parliament. With new elections, there would be no guarantee that whoever became prime minister would stand by the request for an extension. And, 20,000 US troops in Iraq are not troops, they are hostages. Their bases would attract on a constant basis the kind of demonstrations we saw in front of the existing ones on Saturday, and might well be a political vehicle whereby the hard line Sadrist trend among Shiites could strengthen itself. It could also throw Iraq back into militia violence.

I’m not sure what the Obama administration thinks it would gain from staying in Iraq, but it is a very, very, bad idea. The vast majority of Iraqis does not want the US there, and nor do the countries of the region, and nor was there ever a legal basis for them to have gone there in the first place. Staying past 2011 without an act of parliament and a national referendum would be illegal, and might well provoke the paroxysm of violence it is said to be an attempt to counter. Iraqi troops can be trained outside the country, and a US air security umbrella, if Iraqis want one, can be provided from al-Udeid Base in Qatar– it doesn’t have to involve bases in Iraq.

17 Responses

  1. Suppose a bank forecloses on one’s property and evicts the unfortunate customer from the property because he is known to beat his wife. The bank’s lawyers say it is perfectly legal.

    Strange it may seem, but this is exactly what Obama admin does to Gaddafi. Other customers of this bank may hate this wife beater for one reason or another, but make no mistake, this bank is looking for all kinds of seemingly unrelated problems.

    This is why I am absolutely not surprised that now Obama admin has all these problems in Iraq.

  2. What about U.S. plans to double the size of its embassy to 18,000? What do they do? How often do they leave their plush prison and with what kind of retinue?

    How often does the Iraqi parliament meet? How often with a quorum? How many members live in Iraq?

  3. There is no Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). According to the DOD Dictionary, a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) is an agreement that defines the legal position of a visiting military force deployed in the territory of a friendly state. It does not deal with overall bilateral relationships. That’s what a treaty is for.

    There is no treaty either. The agreements between the US and Iraq regarding US military presence were purposely not treated as a treaty. In the US they were treated as an executive agreement — SOFA was a convenient term — so as to avoid senate advice and consent in accordance with the US Constitution. The Repubs and the Dems were complicit in this subterfuge in the fall of 2008, Obama and Biden being the lead Dems at this time. (The process on the Iraq side was more open.)

    Bush didn’t want to mess with the senate, and the Dems were looking forward to being in the position they are presently in, where a new executive agreement is so much easier than going back to the senate for a new treaty. It’s another indicator as if one were needed of the commonality of executive privilege in the two political parties.

    There aren’t even any US documents. What we have are translations of Iraqi documents.

    On November 26, 2007, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki co-signed the Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship Between the Republic of Iraq and the United States of America.

    There are two agreements:
    * a Withdrawal of Forces Agreement: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.
    * a Strategic Framework Agreement: “the Parties shall continue to foster close cooperation concerning defense and security arrangements without prejudice to Iraqi sovereignty over its land, sea, and air territory.”

    The U.S. wants to alter the withdrawal agreement.

  4. President Obama is evidently bent on keeping American troops in Iraq, which is another tragedy of this war-making and occupying Presidency. I want America out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Libya, completely and now. Enough war-making.

  5. The fundamental reason the Middle East is destabilized is because of the West’s–primarilly the US Empire’s–desire to control the region utilizing the neo-Colonial methods it devised for the purpose. The region’s people are unwilling to suffer through a fourth generation of having their possibilities strangled by the West’s tyranny meted out though its compradores. They understand very well they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so their efforts will not cease until they gain the freedom they seek. The Saudi-US counter-revolution will kill innocents and slow the process, but is incapable of stopping the movement because the masses have reached a tipping-point in awareness regarding the loss/gain mentioned above. For example, the Viet Minh fought the French, Japanese, and the US Empire for 50+ years to gain the freedoms they sought from Wilson and the West in 1919 at Versailles, but to do so they had to become more ruthless than their Colonial enemies. Ultimately, it’s all about control: Will there be democracy or oligarcy–Enlightenment and Freedom or tyranny. This is the current world-wide question. Icelanders have just voted for Freedom and democracy, telling the European bankers who would enslave them to piss-off. The Arab Revolt is trying to send the same message.

  6. Dear Professor Cole

    One wonders idly who will defend these enormous air bases once the rearguard leaves.

    It is quite obvious that they are part of a contingency plan to bomb whoever is being inconvenient at the time.

    Alternatively they might be part of a Reforger like plan to fly in lots of troops to rev up the prepositioned tanks and artillery.

    Al Sadr and his guys sitting at the end of the runway with a few batteries of SAM does rather put a spoke in the wheel of that idea.

    • It is quite obvious that they are part of a contingency plan to bomb whoever is being inconvenient at the time.

      They certainly were. Even before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration was planning to build bases in Iraq to replace those in Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud didn’t want a U.S. military presence, and the Bushes are very close to the Sauds, so the plan was to use Iraqi bases to project power in the MENA region instead of Saudi bases.

      It wasn’t until years later that the Bush administration was forced to give up on establishing permanent American bases in Iraq. Then-Senator Obama was opposed to them from the beginning.

  7. Remember when you lambasted the Left for being “as nervous as a vegan in a butcher shop” and assuring us that there is “no cause for alarm”?

    Then:

    COLE: “The new president forcefully rejected Bushian mission creep. Obama admitted, “We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq’s streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq’s union is perfected.” In other words, he is prepared to depart Iraq even if it remains somewhat divided, even if a drumbeat of subdued violence continues in its cities, and even if anti-Americanism retains a certain purchase on the population.”

    link to salon.com

    Now:

    COLE: “Muqtada’s threat was a shot across the bow of the Obama administration, which has shown interest in recent weeks in maintaining a US military presence in Iraq past the end of this year. Gareth Porter reports that the Obama team has been spooked by the widespread unrest in the Middle East and have reconsidered their determination to get out of Iraq on a short timetable.”

    Although to be fair, Cole, you always were supportive of the Navy and Air Force staying in Iraq indefinitely:

    Then:

    COLE: “It would be wrong to overlook these simple words: “And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.” Though the word “troops” referred to the Army and the Marines, not to the Air Force and Navy, what Obama said on Friday was a firm pledge to leave.”

    Um… a pledge to leave the Navy and Air Force? Huh? That’s withdrawal?!?

    COLE: “He was attempting to provide for an orderly withdrawal that will ensure that U.S. troops are not drawn back in by a subsequent security collapse.”

    We were “drawn” into Invading? And we can be “drawn back” to occupation? Is this why the War Powers Act has become so irrelevant and “quaint”?

    Now:

    COLE: “I’m not sure what the Obama administration thinks it would gain from staying in Iraq, but it is a very, very, bad idea. ”

    Obviously they only want to protect democracy and defend civilians (like we are doing altruistically in Libya).

    • It is clever of you to misrepresent my analysis of what is likely to happen as my position on what should happen, but only malice could possibly lead you to do so.

  8. I want to wait and hear what Obama says about this.
    Getting the troops out of Iraq is important and would be one less military expense.

  9. Links for the two Iraq agreements (translations):

    * Withdrawal of Forces agreement: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.*
    link to media.mcclatchydc.com

    * Strategic Framework Agreement: “the Parties shall continue to foster close cooperation concerning defense and security arrangements without prejudice to Iraqi sovereignty over its land, sea, and air territory.”
    link to globalsecurity.org

  10. The above discussion on “troops” v. “forces” is an inevitable result of the executive agreement for withdrawal which doesn’t exist as an English U.S. official document, to my knowledge. The translation that I have (above) says “forces.”

  11. I suppose only the most naive, bleeding heart, lefty would think this way, but instead of wanting to leave forces with guns, artillery, tanks, and attack aircraft behind, wouldn’t it make more sense to leave behind a large well financed AID operation to help the Iraqis put their destroyed country back together.

    Since Desert Storm, continuing through sanctions, then the invasion/occupation, our true investment in Iraq has been the destruction of that nations viability. The forces Obama would like to leave behind have one function – create military violence on command, just like in the good old days.

    Iraq now has huge military and police forces whose only real role is internal security, and they all speak Arabic. If they can’t handle security, I doubt very much that our forces would be of much help. After all, Iraq was at its most insecure when we were warring the most, with our vast resources.

    Muqtada al-Sadr has understood since day one of the invasion that our only interests in Iraq were our own “national interests”. That’s why we tried like hell to kill him and his followers, e.g. the “Surge” on Sadr City.

    It must be a lot more fun to be a neocon, never having to be bothered by outcomes, and being devoid of the empathy gene. But since Obama is moving the left rightward on a daily basis I might live to find out how it feels.

  12. Obama wants to stay in Iraq because scaring the hell out of the American people is what you have to do to become and stay president. Iraq would be too handy in that respect for potential presidential rivals to exploit if we withdrew, and anything happened there. What are the odds on nothing happening there between now and Election Day that the usual Republican goons couldn’t exploit as being both an clear existential threat to US security, and the direct result of Obama having “lost” Iraq by withdrawing?

  13. Dear Prof. Cole,

    It’s important to keep in mind that the Pentagon is dead set against leaving Iraq. Doing so is understood (rightly or wrongly) to represent a major strategic defeated This statement by Anthony Cordesman, who is close to the Pentagon, is an indication of this thinking:

    “ … we have not yet won anything in grand strategic terms. If we don’t maintain strong presence … we throw away any chance at turning what has so far been a tactical victory into one that has any lasting meaning.”

    link to nytimes.com

    Obama’s personal inclination may well be to remove the troops from Iraq. However, in this regard, he will face entrenched resistance from the military establishment. We’ve seen repeatedly that Obama tends to capitulate in such circumstances, and he is doing so again.

  14. Prof. Cole,
    Do you have any sense on Muqtada’s ability to reform the Mahdi Army? Its initial rise following the US invasion I think was largely a surprise, but was clearly influential and able to take hold of, and in some sense advance the Islamist movement. However, now that time has passed since it was a significant military presence in Iraq, do you have any sense of Muqtada’s ability to influence violent action today? It seems that the Iraqi government has at this point largely consolidated the security forces. I admittedly don’t know too much of Sadr’s recent activities, but my personal sense of what little I’ve read on him recently is that there thus far has been no indication of violent action, thus leaving me at present to believe his capacity for a Mahdi Army revival would be limited.

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