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The Worst Mistake Yet In Iraq

Iraqi Shiite supporters of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shout slogans during an anti-US rally, in the holy city of Najaf, 09 April 2007. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites carrying Iraqi flags converged today in the holy city of Najaf for an anti-US rally called by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as the war-torn country marked the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) April 09, 2007
After four years of war, 3,200 American deaths, 23,000 U.S. troops wounded and possibly in excess of 100,000 Iraqis killed, U.S. policymakers are now making what may prove to be their worst mistake yet: They may be on a new collision course with Moqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. forces backed by Iraqi troops were reported Saturday in fierce clashes with Sadr's Shiite Mahdi Army militia in a bid to wrest control from it of the southern Iraqi town of Diwaniyah.

There is a considerable amount of tactical justification for U.S. forces to clash with Sadr's forces now, especially in Diwaniyah. With a U.S. air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities widely expected in the region, U.S. forces may want to suppress, cripple or intimidate Sadr's militia -- the most pro-Iranian and anti-American of all the Shiite paramilitary groupings in Iraq -- as a preemptive measure.

Also, if Sadr's forces and other allied Shiite groups were to attempt to cut crucial U.S. supply lines from Kuwait and the Persian Gulf up to the main concentration of American forces in Iraq in and around Baghdad, it would also make sense to Pentagon planners to secure Diwaniyah along one of the crucial supply routes first.

In addition, the prevailing wisdom in the Bush administration and the U.S. Department of Defense is that Sadr's militia is suppressed, dispirited and splintering with many of its top leaders already fled to Iran to avoid apprehension as part of the bold new U.S. surge strategy.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., just back from his fifth visit to Iraq during the current conflict, expressed this wisdom in an op-ed in the Washington Post Sunday in which he claimed that Sadr's supporters 'are not contesting American forces."

Unfortunately for McCain, the very same edition of the Post in which his column appeared also contained a news article entitled "U.S. Fights Iraqi Militia in South."

The article made clear that Mahdi Army forces in Diwaniyah, whether on their own initiative or, as appears much more likely, on Sadr's express instructions, are indeed contesting control of the town with the U.S. and Iraqi army troops trying to regain it.

Not for the first time, it may well be that the Pentagon and Bush administration assessment of the raw intelligence data they are receiving from Iraq is based on wishful thinking and is wildly wrong.

Pentagon, analysts remain disproportionately neo-conservative, with many of the most influential ones recruited during the glory days of Deputy defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith. Such people usually lacked any Arabic language skills or any first hand experience of the Arab Middle East at all.

And they have consistently been behind the curve in recognizing the rise of the sectarian militias across Iraq, especially the Shiite ones. They have also consistently underestimated the depth of the passionate loyalties and strong networks these groups have been able to build.

In contrast to the optimistic assessments by the White House, the Pentagon and Sen. McCain, in a March 12 "Eye on Iraq" column, we attributed the failure of the Mahdi Army to contest the new U.S. drive against Sunni militias in Baghdad not to the weakness or splintering of Sadr's forces, but to shrewd strategic calculations by him.

We wrote then, "Although Sadr is extremely anti-American, like other Shiite politicians he realizes that currently the U.S. forces in Iraq are committed to wiping out his main long-term enemies, the Sunni Islamist forces. Therefore he has remained on the sidelines in the current struggle in Baghdad. This has given U.S. forces the chance to cooperate in limited but effective ways with various Shiite militias."

But we also cautioned, "If the United States launches major air strikes against the nuclear facilities in neighboring Iran, then Iran's Revolutionary Guards look certain to use their massive clout with the Mahdi Army, and with other Shiite militias, to get them to cut off cooperation with U.S. forces in Iraq and to attack the Americans instead.

"In that eventuality, U.S. forces in Iraq could find themselves in a nightmarish, chaotic situation, fighting different enemies at the same time. They certainly could not count on the loyalty of the Iraqi security forces, which Iraq's own government has admitted have been infiltrated by up to as many as 100,000 men with militia -- mostly Shiite -- links."

The Mahdi Army has fought U.S. forces several times before and the conflicts have always died down. Following the mauling of his forces in an April 2004 series of clashes with U.S. troops, Sadr has avoided going out too far on a limb against them again. In the short term, the Diwaniyah fighting may well follow the same pattern.

However, the tacit support of the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias is crucial to the success of U.S. Iraq ground forces commander Gen. David Petraeus' "spreading ink blots of security" strategy to secure Baghdad against the Sunni insurgents operating there.

And if other Iraqi Shiite groups, especially those controlled by the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, were to rise up and attack U.S. forces in retaliation for any U.S. air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities, then Sadr almost certainly would not hesitate to order a general uprising against U.S. forces, if he knew that this time he was not alone, but part of a far broader and more formidable Shiite coalition.

On March 12 we warned, "U.S. strategies for Iraq and neighboring Iran are therefore chaotically entangled already, and even on a collision course." The latest fighting in Diwaniyah unfortunately confirms the continuing accuracy of that assessment.

Source: United Press International

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