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IRAQ: Shi’a Unity Deal Explodes U.S. Proxy War Myth

Analysis by Gareth Porter*

WASHINGTON, Aug 7 2009 (IPS) - The agreement announced Monday between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and a Shi’a resistance group called the "League of the Righteous" (Asa'ib al-Haq) formally ended the group’s armed opposition to the regime in return for the release of its leader and eight other Shi’a detainees. This deals a final blow to the U.S. military’s narrative of an Iranian "proxy war" in Iraq.

The U.S. command in Iraq has long argued that Iran was using "special groups" of Shi’a insurgents who had broken away from cleric Moqtada al- Sadr’s Mahdi Army to destabilise the U.S.-supported Iraqi regime – but pro- Iranian groups were weakened by U.S. military pressures throughout 2007 and defeated by the al-Maliki regime in 2008.

The history of the new agreement confirms what was evident from existing evidence: the "League of the Righteous" was actually the underground wing of the Mahdi Army all along, and the Sadrist insurgents were secretly working closely with the al-Maliki regime against the Americans and the British – even as it was at war with armed elements within the regime.

The contradictory nature of the relationship between al-Maliki and the Sadrists reflects the tensions between pro-Sadrist elements within the regime – including al-Maliki’s Da’wa Party – and the anti-Sadrist elements led by the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The relationship between al-Maliki and the U.S. was also marked by contradictions. Even through he was ostensibly cooperating with the U.S. against the Sadrists in 2007 and 2008, the al-Maliki regime was also cooperating secretly with the Sadrist forces against the Americans. And al- Maliki – with the encouragement of Iran – was working on a strategy for achieving the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq through diplomatic means, which he did not reveal to the Americans until summer 2008.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Qods Force commander was playing the role of mediator between al-Maliki and the Sadrists, encouraging the latter to reach ceasefires with the government on the promise that he would get American troops out of the country.

Representatives of the "League" have said their reconciliation with al-Maliki is based on a common aim of expelling the U.S. military influence from Iraq.

One of the insurgent group’s representatives, Abdul Hadi al-Daraji explained the reconciliation with the government this week by observing that the government "is working to regain Iraqi sovereignty, and that is what the resistance was aimed towards."

But Salam al-Maliki, a prominent Sadrist, made it clear that the group had not renounced violence against the American troops. "We are only fighting the United States," he told the New York Times.

Underlining the lack of distinction between the "League" and the Sadrist movement, both of the main negotiators for the Shi’a insurgents on the agreement are among Moqtada al-Sadr’s most loyal lieutenants.

Salam al-Maliki was the head of the bloc of Sadrist members of parliament in 2006. Abdul Hadi al-Daraji was a senior aide to Sadr when he was arrested in Baghdad in Jan. 2007 by Iraqi Special Forces working closely with U.S. forces. Sadr complained to al-Maliki about the arrest, however, and al-Maliki adviser Sadiq al-Rikabi pledged that al-Daraji would be released.

Hadi al-Daraji was only released by the Americans in Jun. 2009, however, as part of the deal with Shi’a insurgents holding a British hostage they had taken in May 2007.

Before he was captured in Mar. 2007, Qais Khazali – who is now said to be the leader of the "League" – was identified by U.S. military officials as the leader of the allegedly Iranian-backed "special groups" of rogue Sadrist militants in Iraq before being captured.

But Khazali, who had been Sadr’s spokesman in Sadr City in 2004, had gone underground just as Sadr was entering a period of participation in Iraq’s constitutional politics. He and his brother Laith Khazali were engaged in operations – such as procuring weapons for the Mahdi Army – that Sadr did not wish to acknowledge.

That was especially true when U.S. troops were entering Sadr City for the first time. That is when Sadrist and Mahdi Army officials were attributing armed resistance to the Americans to breakaway groups under Iranian control.

But the underground Sadrist military units were in regular contact with the acknowledged Mahdi Army structure, as one member of a secret cell in Baghdad told AFP in Sep. 2007.

In any case, Sadr himself publically called for Khazali’s release from detention in an interview with al-Jazeera in Mar. 2008 – just a month after an organisation related to Khazali had proposed to swap British hostages for nine Shi’a leaders.

The Khazali organisation had close operational links, moreover, with officials of the al-Maliki regime at province and central government levels.

On Jan. 20, 2007, Shi’a insurgents abducted five Americans from a joint Iraqi-U.S. security centre in Karbala and later killed them. The U.S. military command spokesman, Gen. Kevin Bergner, suggested at a briefing Jul. 2, 2007 that the U.S. military had learned from Qais Khazali that Iran had directed the Karbala attack.

But an internal U.S. army investigation had already found evidence that both the governor and police chief in Karbala had been complicit in the attack, as revealed by Time magazine two weeks later.

Col. Michael X. Garrett, commander of the Fourth Brigade combat team – which had responsibility for Karbala in 2007 – confirmed to this writer last December that the Karbala attack "was definitely an inside operation," and that the province Governor Aqil al-Khazali, was suspected of having collaborated in the operation.

Governor al-Khazali was a member of al-Maliki’s Da’wa Party and held his job because of his loyalty to the Prime Minister.

On May 29, 2007 a large group of armed men seized five Britons from the Information Technology Centre of the Finance Ministry in Baghdad, and the Shi’a who later negotiated the deal with the government used the hostages to bargain for the freedom of Shi’a detainees.

However, the Guardian reported Jul. 30 on a ten-month investigation into that hostage-taking. It found evidence that the kidnapping operation had the earmarks of an Iraqi state operation involving officials of the Interior and Finance ministries.

Iraqi intelligence agents who happened to be at the site and saw the kidnapping unfold told the investigators that the operation involved twenty white Toyota Landcruisers whose markings identified them as belonging to the Ministry of Interior.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie even hinted that there was official collusion, conceding in an on-camera interview with the Guardian that government institutions were "not fallible" and may have been "infiltrated."

Two days after the kidnapping, the Ministry of Defence warned those in the building during the operation to "forget everything" that had happened.

Investigators also identified a motive for an Iraqi government operation to kidnap the two British computer specialists (one of whom managed to avoided capture): they were installing a financial information system to track billions of dollars of oil and foreign assistance money through the government ministries – thus putting at risk the regime’s large-scale embezzlement.

The evidence revealed by the Guardian suggests that the Shi’a insurgents were given the British hostages as a way of covering up the official nature of the kidnapping. The Shi’a apparently created the "Islamic Shiite Resistance in Iraq" – an organisation that had not previously been heard of – merely for the purpose of holding the British hostages.

The Feb. 2008 videotape offer by that group to release their British hostages in return for nine Shi’a detainees, which prefigured the present reconciliation agreement, presumably reflected an understanding already reached with al- Maliki regime.

*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.

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