Last week's attack by U.S.-led Iraqi paramilitary forces on a building that Shiite leaders claim was a mosque may have marked the beginning of a new stage of U.S. policy in which Iraqi forces are used to carry out military operations against Shiite militia forces -- especially those loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.
However, such a strategy risks uniting the Shiites against the U.S. military occupation and leading to a showdown that makes that presence politically untenable.
Just before the operation against the mosque complex, which the U.S. military referred to as a "terrorist base", U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad hinted broadly that the United States would soon target the Shiite militias for the brunt of its operations.
"The militias haven't been focused on decisively yet," he declared, adding that militias were now killing more Iraqis than the insurgents. Khalilzad further pinpointed the Mahdi Army and its ties to Iran as the primary and most immediate U.S. concern.
Most of those killed in the raid by U.S. Special Forces and their Iraqi counterparts apparently worked for Muqtada al-Sadr's political-military organisation, the Mahdi Army. After the raid, moreover, the State Department spokesman said the incident underlined the need to free Iraq's security forces from sectarian control.
Militiamen loyal to al-Sadr have been implicated in many of the reprisal killings against Sunnis since the bombing of the Shiite mosque in Samarra last month. Al-Sadr's forces may also be targeted, however, because he has closer links to Iran than any other Shiite political figure.
On a visit to Tehran last January, al-Sadr declared, "The forces of Mahdi Army defend the interests of Iraq and Islamic countries. If neighbouring Islamic countries, including Iran, become the target of attacks, we will support them."
In a move evidently aimed at building popular support for a possible confrontation with the United States, ministers representing all three Shiite parties in the government united in denouncing the raid as a massacre. Even more significant, however, the "Shiite Islamist Alliance" has demanded the restoration of control over security matters to the Iraqi government.
That demand throws the spotlight on the continued de facto U.S. control over certain Iraqi military and military forces, in contrast to the formal independence of the Iraqi government and army and police. The Shiite leadership is now afraid that the United States plans to use that control to intervene in the sectarian political crisis of the country to reduce the power of the Shiites in the government.
The spokesman for the Dawa Party, Kuthair al-Khuzzaie, referred directly to that possibility, warning the U.S. in a Mar. 26 press conference that "a battle with the calm giant Shiite means they are falling into a dangerous swamp".
The Shiites have shown no willingness to give up their control over sectarian Shiite militias, which they regard as their only guarantee against future moves to unseat a Shiite-dominated government.
According to Joost Hilterman of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, Shiite leaders are now talking about the "second betrayal" of the Shiite cause by the United States. The first betrayal was the U.S. failure to intervene to support a Shiite uprising against the Saddam Hussein regime at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, which resulted in the killing of thousands of Shiite civilians.
In a showdown between military forces of the two sides, the militant Shiites would have a considerable advantage in numbers, but the U.S. would be able to deploy better trained and equipped Iraqi forces. U.S. combat forces would be ready to intervene on their side.
The main forces available to the Shiites will be the militiamen loyal to al-Sadr, whose population base in the sprawling Baghdad slum called Sadr City includes at least a million Shiites. In 2004, U.S. intelligence estimated the Mahdi Army at 10,000 fighters, but the actual number is almost certainly several times larger than that, given al-Sadr's ability to recruit followers during 2005.
The Shiites can also count on some 10,000 militiamen in the Badr Organisation, formerly known as the Badr Brigade, established and trained by Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Iran and still said to be financed by Iran. Many of Badr militiamen were brought into police units run by the Interior Ministry last year, and the Interior Minister Bayan Jabr continues to support them.
In addition the all-Shiite 1st Brigade, with 4,000 men, which was given control over all of Baghdad west of the Tigris River last year, is likely to side with the Shiites against its U.S.-backed rivals in any showdown. Despite its 250 U.S. advisers, the 1st Brigade was reported by Knight Ridder's Tom Lasseter last October to be taking its overall direction from local Shiite clerics -- not from the Ministry of Defence.
On their side, the United States can use a number of units responsive to U.S. direction in a crackdown against Shiite militia. The spearpoint of the new U.S. campaign against Shiite militias will be the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), a brigade of 1,300 troops under the command of Kurdish officers. It is believed to consist of mostly Kurdish troops.
Nominally under the Ministry of Defence, the ISOF works closely with U.S. Special Forces and has no loyalty to any Iraqi central government. It includes two battalion-sized operational units, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Task Force and the Iraqi Commandoes.. It was the Counter-Terrorism unit that carried out the raid with U.S. Special Forces last week.
The U.S. Embassy began preparing paramilitary forces it could count on to support U.S. geopolitical interests in the broader conflict with Iran during the Ayad Allawi regime, in which the Interior Ministry was filled with old Central Intelligence Agency collaborators.
CIA advisers to the Interior Ministry created a force of "special police commandoes" consisting of 5,000 elite troops commanded by a former Baathist general, Adnan Thabit. Many of the commandoes recruited for the unit were former Hussein security personnel themselves, partly because of their experience in counterinsurgency, and partly because they would be strongly anti-Iran. While still under the Interior Ministry in theory, these commandoes will follow the lead of the U.S.-supported Gen. Thabit.
The move against Shiite militia units appears to be the result of a new fear in the White House of impending disaster in Iraq. Despite soothing talk by U.S. commanders earlier in March that the threat of civil war had passed, Brig. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, deputy chief of operations for the U.S. Central Command, revealed the command's pessimistic view out civil war when he told Associated Press, "Whenever it happens, it's Iraq's problem and Iraqis have to take care of it."
The White House may also have begun to doubt that the political negotiations on a new government will do much to reverse that trend. The idea of a more aggressive policy toward the Shiite militias appeals to the desire to do something dramatic to regain control of the situation.
A strategy of trying to wrap up the Mahdi Army, however, would represent another major U.S. miscalculation. The militant Shiites hold the high cards in any showdown: the ability to mobilise hundreds of thousands of followers in the streets of Baghdad. The most likely result of such a campaign would be a decisive -- and final -- political defeat for the occupation.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
© 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service