With sectarian rifts abound in Iraq, the United States has recklessly found itself fighting the battles of a sectarian government as it engages what are unquestionably called “terrorists” or “insurgents” in Washington. In the meantime, while the US military fights Sunni forces in al-Anbar province in Iraq’s vast eastern desert, Shiite militias have turned Baghdad into their private playground. The Mahdi Army, with its strongest center of Capital-based support in Baghdad’s Sadr city Shiite slums, has taken to ethnically cleansing Sunni neighborhoods. This has happened because of US intransigence and weakness in confronting the Iraqi government to let the United States open up on Shiite militias in the same way it is giving it to Sunni insurgents.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has opposed US troop boosts for one major reason – the United States wants to fight all militant elements in the country, not just the Sunni ones that were once the core of the insurgency. Besides two organized rebellions by the Mahdi Army in 2004, Sunni radicals have attacked Baghdad and dominated Anbari cities like Ramadi since the inception of the war. But these forces are hardly organized and present an irritable threat to stability as Shiite militias aim to ethnically isolate and cleanse Sunnis.
The Shiite offensive by militias as only gone on for roughly a year, since the major insurgent attack on a Shiite shrine in Samarra (which is actually north of Baghdad in heavily Sunni country). However, the American crackdown has not been focused on Shiite, but Sunni insurgents, who are incapable of these massive operations. The United States was even confronted with opposition from the Iraqi government about its new plan, because it focused too much on Baghdad, leading to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suggesting the US focus on al-Anbar and allow the Iraqi government to take the lead ob Baghdad operations.
Those suggestions thankfully led Bush in the opposite direction, bringing him to the realization that no matter which Shiite political party was in power – Maliki’s al-Da’wa al-Islamiyya (or just al-Da’wa), Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Iraq’s largest party), or Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, that the flavor of the party and its militia will lead it to favor its own ethnic interests and thus promote sectarianism.
To his credit, Bush has tried in recent months to promote a multiethnic coalition overnment that would sideline Sadr, and those like him with a “moderate” alliance – Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs under one banner. But the flaws involved here are two-fold. One, this does not strengthen Sunni forces against Shiite and possibly government-sponsored Shiite attacks; and two, it sidelines Muqtada al-Sadr, who ironically carries political beliefs that are more similar to American interests – he opposes breaking Iraq into autonomous regions.
This idea, coming from the Kurdish demands for autonomy but popular with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), would allow groups of Iraqi provinces to form regions that would have a great degree of independence from the central government. Al-Sadr’s anti-foreign stance, and thus anti-imperialist stance, sees this as making smaller pieces of Iraq more vulnerable to outside influence than a strong centralized Iraqi state. While this sounds like it makes al-Sadr heavily anti-American and a force to be reckoned with, and it does, this also provides a strong anti-Iranian position in Iraq’s Shiite areas. Al-Sadr is tameable, and has not been at open war with American forces since the summer of 2004. In the meantime, the militia leader’s own rhetoric against Iran has increased, just as US pressure on Tehran has done the same.
On the other hand, the central government, while it depends on some support from al-Sadr, is controlled and dominated by SCIRI. SCIRI started as an exiled opposition party to Saddam Hussein by exiles in Iran. The party’s militia, the Badr Brigades fought along with the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. It is heavily influenced by Iran, and its militia members are preeminent in Iraq’s security forces. With such close ties between the clerical leaders in the Iraqi government and those of the Iranian government, you essentially see the realistic formation of an Iranian satellite state in Iraq.
IF THE US ALLOWS THISSECTARIAN AND SEPARATIST ORGANIZATION TO FRAGMENT IRAQ, IT ALLOWS IRAN TO MORE EASILY CONSOLIDATE ITS INFLUENCE IN SHIITE AREAS, that would be free of the burden of a substantial Sunni Arab minority.
This has to be opposed, and the US is left little choice in its maneuverability. At this point, allowing Iraq to become an Iranian client state would be as a parallel a disaster as the ethnic cleansing occuring right now, especially in Baghdad. The US should consider becoming more authoritative and balancing the forces of Sunnis and Shiites, plus pay closer attention to the ethnic concerns of countries like Saudi Arabia, which has vowed to support Sunni Arab Iraqis if the US fails to protect them. Countering Iranian influence is vital, and Iraq is a bigger front than Lebanon in this regard.