Category Archives: mahdi army

u.s.-iraq security deal is opposed by al-sadr followers

Opposition Mounts to US-Iraq Security Deal

Followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protested in Shiite enclaves across Iraq on Friday, May 30, 2008, against plans for a long-term security pact that would allow for an extended U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 30, 2008; 6:45 PM



BAGHDAD, May 30 — Thousands of followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr protested Friday in Shiite enclaves across Iraq against plans for a long-term security pact that would allow for an extended U.S. military presence in the country.

“No, no to America! No, no to the occupation!” demonstrators chanted as they waved Iraqi flags and banners after Friday afternoon prayers in Sadr’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City. “Yes, yes Moqtada! Long live al-Sadr!”

Some of the protesters carried pictures of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dressed as former president Saddam Hussein. In one corner, a group burned an effigy of Maliki, then danced and stomped on it, as Iraqi government soldiers kept their distance.

The protests were the first since Iraqi troops entered Sadr City this month to assert control over one of Iraq’s unruliest zones. But Friday’s actions highlighted Sadr’s power and popularity among poor Shiites, even as the Shiite-led Iraqi government, backed by U.S. and British forces, have waged a concerted campaign in recent months to weaken his movement and undermine his leadership credentials.

Friday’s protests also underscored Sadr’s long-term strategy to fulfill his ambitions of leading Iraq someday. After his Mahdi Army militia engaged last month in fierce battles with U.S. and Iraqi forces, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths, Sadr negotiated a pact that allowed Iraqi troops into Sadr City but barred American soldiers. It was viewed as a victory for Maliki’s government and for U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.

But the arrangement has also allowed Sadr to boost his image and popularity, while preserving the strength of his militiamen ahead of all-important provincial elections scheduled for October. There are now fewer raids and airstrikes in Sadr City, home to more than 2 million people, and U.S. and Iraqi government efforts are starting to bring basic services to Sadr’s impoverished core constituency.

Many Iraqi army soldiers in the enclave are Shiites who sympathize with Sadr and his movement. “Most soldiers here are from southern parts of Iraq, and half of them are affiliated with the Sadr trend,” said Salah Sabieh, an Iraqi soldier who was watching the protests unfold. On the windshield of his tan military truck, topped by a soldier manning a machine gun, was a picture of Sadr.”He is the leader. We can’t remove his picture. We are all Shiites,” said Sabieh, standing in front of his truck. “Moqtada Sadr represents all Iraq.”

Sabieh said he supported Sadr’s call to oppose any form of long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

Sadr’s primary ambition has always been a U.S. troop withdrawal. In recent years, his fighters have fought pitched battles against U.S. forces, and his followers have staged numerous demonstrations. When Maliki refused to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Sadr pulled his political bloc from the ruling coalition.

The proposed long-term security pact with the United States would provide a legal framework for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31, when their U.N. mandate expires. Sadr views the planned pact as a blow to Iraq’s sovereignty. His main Shiite rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, an influential Shiite political party that is part of Maliki’s ruling coalition, has also denounced the plans.

Sadr has called for any pact reached with the Americans to be put to a popular referendum so that his followers could “collect millions of signatures” rejecting it. He has vowed to hold protests across Iraq every week after Friday prayers until the pact is canceled.

On Friday, demonstrations also took place in the southern cities of Kut, Nasiriyah and Najaf. In the Kufa, 2,500 protesters marched to a mosque, chanting: “We would rather die than compromise. No, no, America.”

Many protesters carried pistols, which they placed on their prayer mats as they prayed. Photographers and television cameramen were given instructions not to zoom in on faces because the protesters included senior Mahdi Army figures who had fled the government crackdown in other provinces. Banners called for the Iraqi government to release Sadr followers from detention centers and to stop raiding their houses.

There were no major protests in the southern city of Basra, where Sadr’s followers fled or went underground following an Iraqi government offensive in late March. On a recent visit, many Sadr followers refused to meet with or receive phone calls from a reporter because they feared that Iraqi forces would arrest them.

In Basra, the Sadrists have accused the Iraqi forces of representing not the government but their Shiite rivals. The Sadr followers charge that government forces are trying to weaken the movement before the local elections. Iraqi army commanders in Basra have denied the allegations.


sadr city quiet

Iraqi government forces roll into the Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad Saturday, May 17, 2008. Sadr City appeared to be calm Saturday after weeks of bloody clashes between the US forces and Mahdi army fighters.
(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)



By LEE KEATH, Associated Press Writer Wed May 21, 4:31 PM ET

BAGHDAD – With not a Shiite fighter in sight, shoppers crowded through markets and cars packed the streets in Baghdad’s Sadr City on Wednesday — a positive early sign for Iraqi forces in their bid to impose control following a truce with the militia in its stronghold.

But while peace held in the sprawling slum a day after thousands of Iraqi troops rolled in, there were indications that militants were increasing their activity elsewhere. Skirmishes broke out in some nearby districts, including a clash that the U.S. military said killed 11 Shiite gunmen.

Support for anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is high among Sadr City’s 2.5 million residents, nearly half the population of Baghdad. Many see his Mahdi Army fighters as their protectors against Sunni insurgents and the distrusted American forces.

On Wednesday, however, people seemed relieved by the deployment and the calm it brought after weeks of clashes between his Mahdi Army fighters and allied U.S. and Iraqi troops on the edges of the district and in its southern sector.

Alaa Jassem, a day laborer, said the Iraqi troops were welcome — “they are our brothers, our sons, our friends” — but said the government “must be sincere in its promises and deliver aid to the city.”

The Iraqi government has said that as part of the deployment, it will direct funds for reconstruction in Sadr City, which is plagued by poor sewage systems that often overflow, drinking water shortages and poor garbage collection.

Success in Sadr City would be a major boost to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government is seeking to show it can extend its authority over parts of the country long under the control of armed groups.

Much depends on the durability of a truce reached last week between the government and the Mahdi Army. None of the black-garbed fighters was seen on the streets Wednesday, and Sadrist Movement officials say they will stick by the cease-fire. But some have already complained about the unexpected size of the deployment, saying it could provoke the fighters, who still have their weapons.

Ten thousand Iraqi soldiers and police, backed with tanks, moved into Sadr City early Tuesday in the biggest government effort yet to impose control in the bastion of the Mahdi Army.

On Wednesday, Iraqi forces sought to solidify their hold on the district. The troops assumed a high profile in the streets but appeared to be working delicately to avoid provocations.

Soldiers set up more positions and patrols on the main avenues, sometimes stopping their vehicles to establish a temporary checkpoint — but searches of passers-by were rare. One checkpoint stood near the main office the Sadrist Movement, and a tank was positioned in a nearby square.

On Gayara Street, a main avenue running the length of Sadr City, cars, motorcycles and minibuses were jammed — a stark contrast from recent weeks — and soldiers joined police in directing traffic. Some residents brought water for soldiers, and a nearby market was bustling, with sellers announcing their prices on loudspeakers.

Hussein Qassim reopened his barbershop, located on the front line of the battles, for the first time since a government crackdown on militias in the southern city of Basra in early April triggered the uprising in Sadr City. Nearby buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes, and one was nearly demolished.

“Before the cease-fire, life was impossible,” Qassim said in his shop. “But now my customers have returned like normal.”

The shop is only yards away from a concrete wall that U.S. troops have been erecting across the width of Sadr City, dividing the southern sectors held by the Americans from the bulk of the district.

Residents, while welcoming the Iraqi forces, warned them not to move with a heavy hand.

“There’s one issue the government has to be careful about, and that’s searches of houses,” said Hussein Mohammed, a 35-year-old working at a clothes store near Gayara Street.

“The searches mustn’t be random. They have to follow rules and go by the agreement with the Sadrist Movement,” he said.

The Sadrists appear to have agreed to the truce to prevent further losses in fighting and under influence from Iran, which has ties both to them and to Shiite parties in al-Maliki’s government. Under the truce, the Mahdi Army keeps its light weapons, and the government promised to avoid calling in American troops to help secure the district. No U.S. forces were involved in Tuesday’s deployment.

But if the military acts too assertively to break what has been the Mahdi Army’s unquestioned control of Sadr City, it could spark retaliation. Iraqi military officials have said the next stages of the operation will bring moves to arrest some militants and searches for heavy weapons like mortars, heavy machine guns and explosives. The Mahdi Army insists it has no heavy weapons in the neighborhood.

While Sadr City itself has seen no violence since troops moved in, clashes involving Shiite militiamen erupted in several of their strongholds nearby in eastern Baghdad early Wednesday. In most, no casualties were reported.

But the U.S. military said it killed 11 Shiite gunmen in the nearby New Baghdad area. It said four heavily armed militants were killed while traveling in a sport utility vehicle, four others were killed because they engaged in suspicious behavior, and three were killed after they were spotted planting two separate roadside bombs.

Lt. Col. Steven Stover, a U.S. military spokesman, said U.S. troops were acting to stem “an increase in extremist activity” in the neighborhood “when everyone was focused on Sadr City.”

examples of u.s. escalation

Coalition Jets Drop Bombs in Basra

30 killed, 52 wounded in Nassiriya until Friday night

U.S. jets widened the bombing of Basra

Friday: 101 Iraqis, 1 US Soldier Killed, 190 Iraqis Wounded

Thursday: 225 Iraqis, 4 Americans Killed; 538 Iraqis Hurt

Headlines courtesy of Iraq Today

mahdi shiite army extends truce in Iraq, as al-Sadr orders cease-fire continuance

Sadr Extends Truce In Iraq



U.S. Officials Hail Cleric’s Decision

Followers of a radical anti U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr carry his portrait during a ceremony to mark a fourth anniversary of the Shiite uprising against the American occupation in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008. al-Sadr will have a statement read in mosques at Friday prayer services addressing whether his Mahdi Army will extend a six-month cease-fire that’s helped reduce violence throughout Iraq, a Shiite lawmaker said.
 (AP Photo/Karim Kadim) </pShiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr talks to the media in his house in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2005. Al-Sadr announced Friday Feb. 22, 2008 that he will extend a cease-fire order to his Shiite Mahdi Army by another six months, giving Iraq a chance to continue its fragile recovery from brutal sectarian violence. (AP Photo/Alla Al-Marjani, File) (Alaa Al-marjani – AP)

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit R. Paley

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 23, 2008; Page A01

BAGHDAD, Feb. 22 — Anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia on Friday to extend a cease-fire for six months, a decision designed to bolster his stature and power but one that U.S. and Iraqi officials hope will also increase stability in Iraq.

Sadr’s order, read aloud at Shiite mosques across the nation during afternoon prayers, marked another step in his transformation from guerrilla chieftain to political leader. Senior U.S. officials immediately welcomed his decision, underscoring how vital the 34-year-old cleric has become to the United States and its exit strategy for Iraq.

“The continuation of the cease-fire is an important commitment by al-Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr that holds the potential for a further reduction in violence in Iraq,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said by e-mail, referring to Sadr with an honorific used for descendants of the prophet Muhammad.

A U.S. military statement said the six-month extension “will also foster a better opportunity for national reconciliation and allow the coalition and Iraqi security forces to focus more intensively on al-Qaeda terrorists” — members of the Sunni insurgent group that many U.S. commanders say remains the greatest threat to peace in Iraq.

Sadr’s decision reflects Iraq’s transition away from violence and toward a more peaceful politics. Attacks on Shiite areas have fallen since many Sunni insurgents began allying with U.S. troops against religious extremists. At the same time, Sadr is facing growing competition from his Shiite rivals in southern Iraq. Extending the cease-fire could help improve his political standing as a would-be nationalist capable of leading Iraq when U.S. troops leave.

But Sadr’s ability to enforce the truce hinges on his control over the unruly, decentralized militia. Many senior Mahdi Army leaders and politicians loyal to Sadr have called for the cease-fire to be lifted because they said it was being exploited by Iraqi and U.S. forces, and Sadr’s political rivals, to arrest his followers.

In some areas of Baghdad, militiamen have ignored Sadr’s orders and continued to commit atrocities.At Sadr’s gold-domed mosque in the southern holy city of Kufa, several thousand followers packed into the open courtyard as a preacher read aloud the statement from Sadr.”If you want to help me, do as you are ordered and implement what I am going to say, for I am ordering virtue and banning vice,” Sadr said in the statement. “I fear the day of judgment, so I cannot tolerate the disobedience of the disobedient, nor the sins of the sinners, nor the crimes of the criminals.”Afterward, signs of discontent were visible. Some followers shook their heads and appeared frustrated as they left the mosque. Tears welled in the eyes of some militiamen from Diwaniyah, where Iraqi security forces have detained or displaced hundreds of Sadr followers amid allegations of abuse and torture.

“This is a huge shock,” said Bassim Zain, 27, one of the militiamen from Diwaniyah. “We were expecting that Sayyid Moqtada will end the freeze in order to defend ourselves.”

Another militiaman, Jassim Ali, 36, predicted that his comrades under pressure in Baghdad, Diwaniyah, Karbala and Basra “will be obliged to defend themselves. They will not be committed to this decision. This new decision will be an opportunity for the government and the occupiers who are against the Mahdi Army.”

Other senior militia leaders vowed to obey. “We wanted the freeze to be lifted, but we are obedient and loyal to Moqtada Sadr,” said Laith al-Sadr, a Mahdi Army commander in the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad. “We will be patient. We know this path is filled with oppression, but eventually there will be an end for everything.”

Abu Moqtada, 40, a Mahdi Army fighter who gave only his nom de guerre, said Sadr’s followers responded favorably after they heard his announcement inside a mosque in Sadr City: “Yes, yes, Moqtada,” they chanted. “We will obey this order.”

Wathiq Kassim, 32, an Interior Ministry employee who heard the decree read aloud at a Baghdad mosque, said extending the cease-fire would weed out “rogue” elements in the militia and boost the image of Sadr’s movement.

“The goal is to prove to the world that Sadrists are peaceful people,” Kassim said. “From now on, anyone who operates under the name of the Mahdi Army will be exposed as people who are not linked to the Mahdi Army. Those who are committed to this decision — they are the real Mahdi Army.

“Friday’s extension came exactly two years after the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra that triggered waves of sectarian violence, much of it by the Mahdi Army. Last August, Sadr ordered the truce after deadly clashes involving his militia, Iraqi security forces and fighters of his main Shiite rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, in the southern holy city of Karbala.

Since then, the cease-fire has been credited with helping to reduce violence — as have Sunni volunteer forces allied with the United States and the addition of thousands of American troops.On Friday, Iraqi and U.S. officials viewed the extension of the cease-fire as emblematic of Sadr’s political evolution. With the passage of a law last week that calls for provincial elections, they said, Sadr believes his movement could win against Iraq’s current Shiite rulers, widely viewed by Iraqis as corrupt and inefficient. Last year, Sadr’s loyalists withdrew from the government to distance themselves from it.

“They can compete either through the ballot box or through militias,” said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Sadrists think they could make significant advances at the ballot box as part of a backlash at the perceived failures of the government. . . . They think they made a mistake in boycotting elections in 2005.

“Even some Sunni politicians, who were suspicious of Sadr’s motives, appear to be embracing his efforts to steer his movement away from violence. Alaa Maaki, a Sunni legislator with the Iraqi Islamic Party, said the Sadrists are engaging more politically and now meet regularly with representatives of his party. “It’s a good chance for them to come closer to political activities and leave militia activities,” Maaki said. “They were really blamed for having many bad parts, but now we can see they have improved even though their militias had some of the worst criminals who were murdering the Sunni people.”

Not all Sunnis are convinced. Aiman al-Obaidi, 27, a Sunni accountant, once supported Sadr and his nationalist ideals. But after the Samarra bombing, he began to hate the Mahdi Army. Eight months ago, he fled his home in Baghdad’s volatile Sadiyah neighborhood, settling in Irbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.

“Moqtada wants to regain support from Sunnis, but the problem is there are tens of gangs created under the name of Mahdi Army. They just want to kill and kidnap Sunnis for money,” Obaidi said. “It is impossible he can regain his image amongst Sunnis because there is blood between us.”

Iraqi government officials are eager to prevent Sadr from calling off the truce. On Friday, soon after the cease-fire was extended, Sadrists alleged that police and members of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council, burned down four houses in Diwaniyah that belonged to Sadr’s followers.

“The prime minister sent a committee to investigate this today,” said Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “We’re trying to stop the political parties from using the government forces to sort out their political differences,” he added, referring to militia infiltration of security forces.

The U.S. military, too, is eager to capitalize on the extension. Those who honor Sadr’s pledge “will be treated with respect and restraint,” the U.S. military said in its statement, adding that it would welcome any opportunity to participate in dialogue with the Sadrists.

Qais al-Karbalai, a Mahdi Army commander in Karbala, warned that if attacks against Sadr’s followers continue in the south, Sadr could change his mind.

“It’s not like building a holy shrine. It’s just a decision,” Karbalai said. “Anytime there’s harassment by the Americans and the government, Sayyid Moqtada can retreat from his pledge and use his army.”

Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Zaid Sabah and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Kufa contributed to this report.

shiite, sunni political blocs sign pact to maintain iraqi unity

Shiite, Sunni political blocs sign pact to maintain Iraq’s unity

    BAGHDAD, Jan. 13 (Xinhua) — Some of Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni parliamentary blocs signed on Sunday an understanding aimed at protecting the country’s unity and stressing central control over oil reserves.

    “These are political blocs which oppose the oil wealth be out of the control of the central government and have their own point of view toward the future of Kirkuk,” Salih al-Mutlak, head of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, told Xinhua.

    The blocs will guarantee the majority in the 270-seat parliament, said Mutlak, a secular Sunni, referring to a statement of common understanding signed by the blocs in the afternoon.

    Among the blocs which signed the statement are Salih’ bloc, the movement of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi National List of former prime minister Ayad Allawi, two of the three parties that form the Iraqi Accordance Front of Adana al-Dulaimi, the Shiite Fadhilah Party and Islamic Daawa Party, to which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki belongs, Mutlak said.

    The statement said that the blocs pledged to work together in the parliament to stress on higher national interest and to maintain the unity of the country away from sectarian and divisions, according to Mutlak.

    The pact demanded that the country’s natural resources, including the oil and gas should remain under the control of the central government, he said.

    The blocs expressed their concern about the future of Kirkuk and other areas in the north, claimed by the Kurds to be annexed to the Kurdish region, he added.

    The blocs support a political agreement about the future of the oil-rich Kirkuk City, rather than a referendum that is due to be held last year.

    A referendum was decided to be held by the end of last year to determine the future of Kirkuk, in accordance with the article 140in the Iraqi constitution, but has been delayed for six months.

u.s. has put aside benchmarks to obtain iraqi solution

Click here!

For U.S., The Goal Is Now ‘Iraqi Solutions’

Approach Acknowledges Benchmarks Aren’t

By Thomas E. Ricks and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 10, 2008

In the year since President Bush announced he was changing course in Iraq with a troop “surge” and a new strategy, U.S. military and diplomatic officials have begun their own quiet policy shift. After countless unsuccessful efforts to push Iraqis toward various political, economic and security goals, they have decided to let the Iraqis figure some things out themselves.

From Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to Army privates and aid workers, officials are expressing their willingness to stand back and help Iraqis develop their own answers. “We try to come up with Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems,” said Stephen Fakan, the leader of a provincial reconstruction team with U.S. troops in Fallujah.

In many cases — particularly on the political front — Iraqi solutions bear little resemblance to the ambitious goals for 2007 that Bush laid out in his speech to the nation last Jan. 10. “To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country’s economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis,” he pledged. “Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year . . . the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq’s constitution.”

Although some progress has been made and legislation in some cases has begun to slowly work its way through the parliament, none of these benchmarks has been achieved. Nor has the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki taken over security responsibility for all 18 provinces, as Bush forecast it would. Last month’s transfer of Basra province by British forces brought to nine the number of provinces under Iraqi control.

In explaining the situation, U.S. officials have made a virtue of necessity and have praised Iraqi ingenuity for finding different routes toward the same goals. Iraqis have figured out a way to distribute oil revenue without laws to regulate it, Crocker has often noted, and former Baathists are getting jobs. Local and provincial governing bodies — some elected, some not — are up and running.

The Iraqis “are at the point where they are able to fashion their own approaches and desired outcomes,” Crocker said in an interview, “and we, I think, in part recognizing that and in part reflecting on where we have been over the last almost five years, are increasingly prepared to say it’s got to be done in Iraqi terms.”

The U.S. military has praised the Maliki government for acknowledging it is not ready to handle security in much of Iraq, and at the same time has dismissed the ongoing violence in Basra and much of the rest of the south as an Iraqi problem. “There are innumerable challenges in the security situation in Basra,” Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said late last year, “but there are Iraqi solutions emerging to some of these.”

For some observers, the approach indicates a new realism in Washington, a recognition that long years of grandiose plans drawn from U.S. templates have not worked in Iraq. But others charge that the phrase “Iraqi solutions” implies a cynical U.S. willingness to turn a blind eye to sectarianism, political violence and a wealth of papered-over problems — if that is the price of getting the United States out of Iraq.

“The new phrasing is both the dawning of reality, and the cynical use of language and common sense to camouflage past errors, hoping to avoid the audit of flawed logic that got us to this point,” said a retired British general familiar with the U.S. experience in Iraq, and who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his current position.

U.S. officials at various levels are pushing the idea for different reasons, said Sarah Sewall, director of Harvard University‘s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a Clinton-era Pentagon official. While Petraeus has embraced the notion out of “realism,” Sewall said, she thinks the Bush administration “has recently arrived at this formula out of desperation — due to the failure of its past efforts.”

The U.S. occupation authority initially envisioned a free-market paradise for Iraq, with flat taxes and a state-of-the-art stock exchange. Its successors lowered their expectations, seeking a Westernized, relatively corruption-free system, gently trying to wrest the economy away from state ownership. But with little progress, U.S. officials in Baghdad now are simply looking for something that works, frequently spotlighting the Iraqi government’s top economic milestone — passing a national budget and spending some of the appropriated funds.

On the military front, reliance on Iraqi solutions brought an unanticipated success. During the March 2003 invasion, the U.S. military neglected Anbar province, in western Iraq. Later, top commanders decided that a few raids would subdue the growing Sunni insurgency there. Only after Anbar became the center of operations for the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq did U.S. combat forces move to claim the province, engaging in heavy fighting in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

Last year, as Sunni tribes began to turn against al-Qaeda, U.S. officials accepted their offer to sort out the province themselves. Taking a leap of faith, U.S. commanders opened talks with tribal leaders and agreed to let them fight their own battles. But when the U.S. military suggested that the Shiite-led Iraqi government incorporate the Sunni fighters — many of them veterans of anti-U.S. combat — into their own security forces, the Iraqis balked.

The Anbar situation has become an example of the reality Washington confronts, as Iraqis have made clear they do not need U.S. permission to do what they want. “We completely, absolutely reject” a permanent Sunni-based security force, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi told a news conference in late December. As soon as restive Sunni areas are calmed, he said, the local forces will be disbanded.

Talk of Iraqi solutions “is largely a red herring,” said Wayne White, who led the State Department‘s Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005. “This is a catchy phrase aimed at touting — and exaggerating — success in Sunni Arab areas,” such as Anbar, “while diverting focus away from potential downsides related to same,” including the creation of local forces allied with the United States but opposed to the Iraqi government.

Much of the “Iraqi solutions” strategy is taking place on the neighborhood level, where the U.S. military has expressed little interest in reversing the sectarian cleansing that contributed to the recent decline in violence. Joint U.S. civilian-military teams seem steeped in new levels of patience and flexibility. They report ground-level accommodations on such issues as adjusting U.S.-sponsored “micro-loans” to reflect Islamic rejection of interest payments and direct dealings with representatives of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

“Politically, realistically, representatives of . . . Sadr are important,” said Paul Folmsbee, a Foreign Service officer who heads the U.S. civilian-military reconstruction team in Baghdad’s Sadr City. “There’s an office called the Office of the Moqtada al-Sadr, and they also provide many services to the population, and so we work with them.” That includes working with Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, elements of which are fighting U.S. forces elsewhere, Folmsbee told reporters last month.

To Crocker, the meaning of “Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems” is “blindingly obvious. Iraq has got a government. It’s got a system. It’s got provincial governments. It’s got a military and a police. And it has leaders of all of these things who increasingly take themselves seriously as leaders.”

Crocker, who co-wrote a 2002 paper predicting a “perfect storm” of things likely to go wrong after an ill-conceived U.S. invasion, was one of a number of U.S. diplomats who urged early caution. Since his arrival in Baghdad in March, he has insisted that the U.S. role is to “steer, push, prod and pound the table” to help Iraqis move forward without trying to do everything for them.

A major challenge for the Iraqi government this year, he said, will be dealing with rampant corruption. “Will it be through a U.S.-style approach to rule of law, under which officials file financial disclosure payments and can’t take more than a cup of non-Starbucks coffee?” Probably not, he said.

“We can make some suggestions. We have. We are,” Crocker said. “What we need them to do now is say, ‘Thanks very much, but we’ve got a way of our own down which we want to move with this.’ ”

The approach also seems designed to bypass thorny issues. Direct dealings with Sadr’s forces in the Baghdad neighborhoods they control both reverses earlier policy and sidesteps initial U.S. hopes for elected local government. In southern Iraq, U.S. military and civilian officials have refused to become involved in the violence between warring Shiite groups, with Petraeus describing that conflict as something Iraqis must deal with on their own.

The new openness to “Iraqi solutions” also reflects the U.S. military’s painfully learned lessons about how to operate in an alien land. Army Col. Robert Roth, who trained Iraqi army commanders in 2005, said it means that the only way to win in a counterinsurgency campaign is “by, with and through the people within that country where the insurgency exists — they must decide how they want to live and then take action to make it so.” The most successful example of that process in Iraq, Roth added, was the turnaround in Anbar.

To the U.S. civilian officials with whom the military has frequently been at odds in Iraq, it is a welcome change. “I have a lot of admiration for my military colleagues,” said a senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “A lot of them are really getting this, understanding issues . . . family, culture, values, religion. You don’t identify an objective in those areas, like a hill, and say, ‘Let’s come up with a plan, and we’ll take that piece of territory.’ ”

The traditional military belief, he said, was that “if you just bring enough resources to a problem and get the right approach, the outcome is guaranteed. But it’s very, very frustrating for them, as it is for all Americans, for members of Congress, because we are expending so much on this exercise, and we want to know that we’re going to achieve something good.

“But we are learning,” the diplomat said. “We are a pragmatic people at the end of the day . . . [and] you don’t get anybody ever to do something they don’t want to do.”

Several officers pointed out that the emphasis on local answers simply follows the instructions of the Army’s new manual on counterinsurgency. Conrad Crane, an Army historian who co-wrote the manual, noted that it quotes Lawrence of Arabia‘s famous admonition, “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.”

Crane said he has seen among U.S. brigade and battalion commanders in Iraq “a growing realization on the ground that Iraqi solutions will best fit Iraqi problems. We have learned some of this the hard way.”

ten top myths about iraq 2007: juan cole

Top Ten Myths about Iraq 2007

By Juan Cole

10. Myth: The US public no longer sees Iraq as a central issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

In a recent ABC News/ Washington Post poll, Iraq and the economy were virtually tied among voters nationally, with nearly a quarter of voters in each case saying it was their number one issue. The economy had become more important to them than in previous months (in November only 14% said it was their most pressing concern), but Iraq still rivals it as an issue!

9. Myth: There have been steps toward religious and political reconciliation in Iraq in 2007. Fact: The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has for the moment lost the support of the Sunni Arabs in parliament. The Sunnis in his cabinet have resigned. Even some Shiite parties have abandoned the government. Sunni Arabs, who are aware that under his government Sunnis have largely been ethnically cleansed from Baghdad, see al-Maliki as a sectarian politician uninterested in the welfare of Sunnis.

8. Myth: The US troop surge stopped the civil war that had been raging between Sunni Arabs and Shiites in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Fact: The civil war in Baghdad escalated during the US troop escalation. Between January, 2007, and July, 2007, Baghdad went from 65% Shiite to 75% Shiite. UN polling among Iraqi refugees in Syria suggests that 78% are from Baghdad and that nearly a million refugees relocated to Syria from Iraq in 2007 alone. This data suggests that over 700,000 residents of Baghdad have fled this city of 6 million during the US ‘surge,’ or more than 10 percent of the capital’s population. Among the primary effects of the ‘surge’ has been to turn Baghdad into an overwhelmingly Shiite city and to displace hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from the capital.

7. Myth: Iran was supplying explosively formed projectiles (a deadly form of roadside bomb) to Salafi Jihadi (radical Sunni) guerrilla groups in Iraq. Fact: Iran has not been proved to have sent weapons to any Iraqi guerrillas at all. It certainly would not send weapons to those who have a raging hostility toward Shiites. (Iran may have supplied war materiel to its client, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (ISCI), which was then sold off from warehouses because of graft, going on the arms market and being bought by guerrillas and militiamen.

6. Myth: The US overthrow of the Baath regime and military occupation of Iraq has helped liberate Iraqi women. Fact: Iraqi women have suffered significant reversals of status, ability to circulate freely, and economic situation under the Bush administration.

5. Myth: Some progress has been made by the Iraqi government in meeting the “benchmarks” worked out with the Bush administration. Fact: in the words of Democratic Senator Carl Levin, “Those legislative benchmarks include approving a hydrocarbon law, approving a debaathification law, completing the work of a constitutional review committee, and holding provincial elections. Those commitments, made 1 1/2 years ago, which were to have been completed by January of 2007, have not yet been kept by the Iraqi political leaders despite the breathing space the surge has provided.”

4. Myth: The Sunni Arab “Awakening Councils,” who are on the US payroll, are reconciling with the Shiite government of PM Nuri al-Maliki even as they take on al-Qaeda remnants. Fact: In interviews with the Western press, Awakening Council tribesmen often speak of attacking the Shiites after they have polished off al-Qaeda. A major pollster working in Iraq observed,

‘ Most of the recent survey results he has seen about political reconciliation, Warshaw said, are “more about [Iraqis] reconciling with the United States within their own particular territory, like in Anbar. . . . But it doesn’t say anything about how Sunni groups feel about Shiite groups in Baghdad.” Warshaw added: “In Iraq, I just don’t hear statements that come from any of the Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish groups that say ‘We recognize that we need to share power with the others, that we can’t truly dominate.’ ” ‘ ‘

The polling shows that “the Iraqi government has still made no significant progress toward its fundamental goal of national reconciliation.”

3. Myth: The Iraqi north is relatively quiet and a site of economic growth. Fact: The subterranean battle among Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs for control of the oil-rich Kirkuk province makes the Iraqi north a political mine field. Kurdistan now also hosts the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas that sneak over the border and kill Turkish troops. The north is so unstable that the Iraqi north is now undergoing regular bombing raids from Turkey.

2. Myth: Iraq has been “calm” in fall of 2007 and the Iraqi public, despite some grumbling, is not eager for the US to depart. Fact: in the past 6 weeks, there have been an average of 600 attacks a month, or 20 a day, which has held steady since the beginning of November. About 600 civilians are being killed in direct political violence per month, but that number excludes deaths of soldiers and police. Across the board, Iraqis believe that their conflicts are mainly caused by the US military presence and they are eager for it to end.

1. Myth: The reduction in violence in Iraq is mostly because of the escalation in the number of US troops, or “surge.”

Fact: Although violence has been reduced in Iraq, much of the reduction did not take place because of US troop activity. Guerrilla attacks in al-Anbar Province were reduced from 400 a week to 100 a week between July, 2006 and July, 2007. But there was no significant US troop escalation in al-Anbar. Likewise, attacks on British troops in Basra have declined precipitously since they were moved out to the airport away from population centers. But this change had nothing to do with US troops.

iraq’s cleric al-Sadr studies to be ayatollah

Iraq’s Maverick Cleric Hits the Books 

Associated Press Writers
BAGHDAD (AP) – The leader of Iraq’s biggest Shiite militia movement has quietly resumed seminary studies toward attaining the title of ayatollah – a goal that could make firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army an even more formidable power broker in Iraq.

Al-Sadr’s objectives – described to The Associated Press by close aides – are part of increasingly bitter Shiite-on-Shiite battles for control of Iraq’s southern oil fields, the lucrative pilgrim trade to Shiite holy cities and the nation’s strategic Persian Gulf outlet.
The endgame among Iraq’s majority Shiites also means long-term influence over Iraqi political and financial affairs as the Pentagon and its allies look to scale down their military presence in the coming year.
Al-Sadr’s backers remain main players in the showdowns across the region, where fears of even more bloodshed are rising following Wednesday’s triple car bombing in one of the area’s main urban hubs. At least 25 people were killed and scores wounded.
But al-Sadr – who was last seen publicly in May – is also confronting the most serious challenges to his influence, which includes sway over a bloc in parliament and a militia force that numbers as many as 60,000 by some estimates.
Becoming an ayatollah – one of the highest Shiite clerical positions – would give the 33-year-old al-Sadr an important new voice and aura. 
It also would give him fresh clout to challenge his top rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which looks to Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as its highest religious authority and has its own armed wing, the Badr Brigade, which have been largely absorbed into Iraqi security forces.
Al-Sadr often stresses his Iraqi and Arab roots and rejects suggestions that he is beholden to Persian Iran, the world’s Shiite heavyweight and the benefactor of many Shiite politicians.  As an ayatollah, his views and fatwas, or religious edicts, would resonate with even more authority as the battles heat up for sway over Iraq’s Shiite heartland.
Comparisons are often drawn between al-Sadr’s strategy – a mix of militia strength, well-tuned street politics and social outreach – and the hallmarks of Hezbollah, which has been influenced by Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, as well Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran’s 1979 Islam Revolution.
“If … Muqtada becomes a religious authority, the entire movement will grow stronger,” said one of the aides who described al-Sadr’s seminary studies to the AP.
The al-Sadr associates – three in all – spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to share the information with the media. Their accounts, made in separate interviews, were in broad agreement.

Al-Sadr currently has the relatively low title of hojat al-Islam, which leaves his supporters no choice but to seek religious guidance from top establishment clerics – many of whom al-Sadr sees as out of touch with common Iraqis and accuses of acquiescing to Washington’s demands.
The aides said al-Sadr was currently on a path to achieve ayatollah rank possibly by 2010 or earlier. His studies were under the supervision of senior clerics in the Shiite holy city of Najaf – where al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fought grinding urban battles with U.S. forces in 2004.
In 2000, al-Sadr enrolled in “outside research” – roughly the equivalent of a doctoral program. Afghan-born Grand Ayatollah Ahmed Issaq al-Fayadh, one of Najaf’s four top clerics, supervised him when he joined, but al-Sadr’s attendance has been spotty since 2003.
Successful candidates qualify for ayatollah upon completion of the rigorous Islamic studies. But it’s also necessary to have a family pedigree in Islamic scholarship and a following among seminary students and laymen.  Al-Sadr should have no problem. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, is the namesake for the teeming Shiite district in Baghdad known as Sadr City – called Saddam City before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.  Saddam Hussein’s agents killed al-Sadr’s father and two brothers in 1999.
Significantly, the aides said, the main focus of al-Sadr’s studies has been the Shiite doctrine known in Arabic as “wilayet al-faqeeh,” which supports the right of clerical rule.  The concept was adopted Iran’s Khomeini, but carries little support among Iraq’s Shiite religious hierarchy.
Al-Sadr has not been seen in public since May but is believed to travel frequently between Iran and Najaf. His whereabouts are never revealed by his aides and he rarely gives media interviews.
Al-Sadr also is seeking to give the Mahdi Army a more religious bloodline, the aides said. Some militiamen are taking seminary lessons for three hours a day, five days a week in private homes and out-of-the-way mosques to escape the detection of the U.S. military.
The aides said only those who pass seminary exams will remain in the militia, which has been splintered by defections from factions favoring closer ties with Iran and opposing an order in August to put down weapons for six months.  The move was seen as an attempt by al-Sadr to reclaim control of the militia and weed out mutineers. It has been credited for a noticeable reduction in violence, but appears to have emboldened the U.S. military to step up a crackdown against Mahdi leaders.
The cleric’s absence from the public eye has raised some questions about his control of the movement, although his aides said he has been in regular contact with key lieutenants. His loyalists hold 30 of parliament’s 275 seats, the largest share by a single party.
“The movement’s strength and cohesion don’t revolve around al-Sadr alone,” said Saad al-Hadeithi, a political science lecture at Baghdad university. “Al-Sadr is leading a movement that’s largely held together by the historical legacy of the family.”  It’s also fueled by the intense rivalry with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who also carries a bloody family narrative.
The group’s founder, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, was assassinated in August 2003 in a bombing blamed on Sunni militants.  The younger al-Hakim holds the same hojat al-Islam rank as al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr pulled out his ministers from the Shiite-dominated government in April and later pulled out from the umbrella Shiite alliance in parliament.
Tensions in southern Iraq have risen sharply in recent weeks as the United States and Britain prepare to scale down their presence, leaving behind a potentially dangerous power vacuum.
Next week, Britain plans to hand over control of Basra province, the most important in the south. The Pentagon has diverted much of its attention to battles in central and northern Iraq against Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida in Iraq.

Al-Sadr counseled his followers to be patient in the face of “predicament” and commended them on their adherence to his order to stand down. But the aides said al-Sadr’s own patience may be running thin and a showdown with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council may be imminent.
“If this continues for much longer, the Sadrist movement will strike back,” warned one of the aides. “This could have grave consequences for everyone.”