WASHINGTON - A key objective of the Congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus this week will be to defend the George W. Bush administration's strategic political line that it is fighting an Iranian "proxy war" in Iraq.
Based on preliminary indications of his spin on the surprisingly effective armed resistance to the joint U.S.-Iraqi "Operation Knights Assault" in Basra, Petraeus will testify that it was caused by Iran through a group of rogue militiamen who had split off from Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and came under Iranian control.
But the U.S. military's contention that "rogue elements" have been carrying out the resistance to coalition forces was refuted by Sadr himself in an interview with al-Jazeera aired Mar. 29 in which he called for the release from U.S. detention of the individual previously identified by Petraeus as the head of the alleged breakaway faction.
The idea of Iranian-backed "rogue" Shiite militia groups undermining Sadr's efforts to pursue a more moderate course was introduced by the U.S. military command in early 2007. These alleged Iranian proxies were called "Special Groups" -- a term that came not from Iran or the Shiites themselves but from the Bush administration.
In April, after U.S. forces captured a former spokesman for Sadr, Qais al-Khazali, Petraeus himself announced that they had detained "the head of the secret cell network, the extremist secret cells," he said. Petraeus referred to it as "the Khazali network".
U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner asserted in early July that Khazali's network was a "Special Group" which was financed, armed and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and in some instances was even "directed" by it. He said Iran was using a Hezbollah operative to organise such groups to do its bidding in Iran.
The identification of Khazali as head of a "rogue" faction was highly suspect, however. One of Sadr's most trusted aides, Khazali had played a key role in recruitment for the Mahdi Army in its formative stage in 2003. He had gone underground in late 2004, just after heavy fighting in which the Mahdi Army had suffered heavy casualties and just as Sadr was entering into a long period of retreat from military operations.
In a Mar. 30, 2007 press briefing, Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero of the U.S. Joint Staff said both Khazali and his brother were linked with the "Sadr organisation".
A pro-war military blogger named Bill Roggio, who maintains close relations with the U.S. command in Baghdad, revealed in February 2007 that the real purpose of the line about Iranian-controlled "Special Groups" was to facilitate Petraeus's strategy of dividing the Mahdi Army. "The 'rogue element' narrative provides Mahdi Army fighters and commanders an 'out'," wrote Roggio. A Mahdi Army unit commander could either "choose to oppose the government and be targeted," he observed, "or step aside and join the political process."
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker's first comment on the armed resistance in Basra in a Mar. 26 interview emphatically denied that the forces resisting the Iraqi-U.S. operation represented al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
"What you're seeing there is not a rising by Jaish al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army]," Crocker insisted. It was "a subset of Jaish al-Mahdi, the so called 'special groups' that really are basically just criminal militias that are the difficulty here," according to Crocker.
An article by neoconservative military historian Kimberly Kagan in the Wall Street Journal Apr. 3 suggests, however, that Petraeus has slightly reformulated the proxy war line in light of the obvious role played by the Mahdi Army itself in limiting the advance of the U.S.-Iraqi operation.
Kagan is married to Fred Kagan, one of the main author's of Bush's surge policy, and is a full member of the administration's team for conveying its political-military thinking to the elite public. Her article evidently reflects conversations with Petraeus and other officials in Baghdad during the previous week.
Kagan, unlike Crocker on Mar. 26, makes no effort to deny that the Mahdi Army itself was fully involved in the armed resistance in Basra, Baghdad and elsewhere. But she claims that it was "Special Groups" -- not the Sadrists -- who "coordinated the unrest and attacks of the regular Mahdi Army in the capital and provinces".
Furthermore, Kagan describes the Mahdi Army as "a reserve from which the Special Groups can and will draw in crisis". And Sadr himself is dismissed as ultimately a figurehead. "For all of his nationalist rhetoric," writes Kagan, "Mr. Sadr is evidently not in control of his movement..."
The new version of the proxy war narrative still attributes ultimate control over the most powerful Shiite political-military force in the country to the shadowy "Special Groups".
But in an interview with al-Jazeera taped just before the Basra operation was launched and broadcast on Mar. 29, Sadr demanded the release of Qais al-Khazali, whom Petraeus had identified as the head of the alleged "Special Group" that had broken away from Sadr, from U.S. custody.
That confirms the earlier indications that Khazali was never involved in a breakaway faction, and that what the U.S. command refers to as "Iranian-backed Special Groups" never existed.
The Mar. 30 story by McClatchy's Leila Fadel on the ending of the Basra crisis shows that Iran's real strategy in Iraq bears no resemblance to the one portrayed in the U.S. proxy war narrative. Fadel reported that Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Qods (Jerusalem) brigades of the IRGC, brokered a ceasefire with Sadr after representatives of the Shiite parties now supporting the al-Maliki government traveled secretly to Qom, Iran Mar. 29-30, to ask for his intervention.
Suleimani's role in reducing the violence in Basra underlines the reality that Iranian power in Shiite Iraq is based on its having worked with and provided assistance to all the Shiite parties and factions. Iran's determination to stay on good terms with all the Shiite factions has made it the primary arbiter of conflicts among them.
Iran has no reason to look for a small splinter group to advance its interests when it already enjoys a relationship of strategic cooperation with the government itself.
The Madhi Army has received training in both Lebanon and in Iran and has undoubtedly used financial assistance from Iran to procure weapons. But Sadr revealed in his al-Jazeera interview that he had told Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on a trip to Iran that he did not agree with the "political and military interests" that Tehran had pursued in Iraq. That was an apparent reference to Iran's pronounced tilt toward Sadr's Shiite rivals who remain in power with joint U.S.-Iranian support.
Ironically, when Iranian President Mahmound Ahmadinejad visited Iraq in early March, both al-Maliki and Supreme Council chief Abdul Aziaz al-Hakim publicly dissociated themselves from the U.S. "proxy war" line, insisting that Iran was restraining Sadr rather than egging him on.
The interest of Bush administration in keeping the proxy war line alive has nothing to do with Iraqi realities, however. As a strategic weapon for justifying the administration's policies toward both Iraq and Iran, the theme of Iranian interference through "Special Groups" is bound to be a central thread in the testimony by both Petreaus Congressional testimony next week.
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.
© 2008 Inter Press Service