March 22, 2007

Mahdis Fracturing, US Trying To Heal Them?

The Mahdi Army, once a large structure ready to do Moqtada al-Sadr's bidding, has fractured under the weight of the US surge strategy. Hundreds of Mahdi commanders now take orders directly from Iran, where they have gone to train while the US and Iraqi security plan makes the kind of progress that threatens their political stranglehold on Baghdad:

The violent Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army is breaking into splinter groups, with up to 3,000 gunmen now financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, adding a potentially even more deadly element to Iraq's violent mix.

Two senior militia commanders told The Associated Press that hundreds of these fighters have crossed into Iran for training by the elite Quds force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard thought to have trained Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

The breakup is an ominous development at a time when U.S. and Iraqi forces are working to defeat religious-based militias and secure Iraq under government control. While al-Sadr's forces have battled the coalition repeatedly, including pitched battles in 2004, they've mostly stayed in the background during the latest offensive.

The dissolution of the Mahdis should give cause for celebration. After all, they have always had the support of Iran in one form or another. Sadr himself fled to Iran for consultations with the Iranian mullahcracy when General David Petraeus prepared the troops for the new security plan, and he hasn't been seen in Iraq since. Even a larger splinter group of 3,000 gunmen taking operational orders from Iran represents a much lower threat than the estimated 60,000 Sadr had under his control, with high morale and a free hand to kill and intimidate Baghdadis.

Apparently, though, the US feels somewhat conflicted about the disintegration of the Mahdis. Yesterday, American military forces released a key Sadr aide in what looks like an attempt to reach some sort of reconciliation with the cleric -- again:

The U.S. military Wednesday released a senior member of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The decision, officials said, was made with the hope of easing tensions between Sadr's Al Mahdi militia and U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Sheik Ahmed Shibani, who had been in prison for 2 1/2 years, was handed over to the office of the Shiite prime minister.

"In consultation with the prime minister and following his request, coalition leaders determined that Sheik Shibani, who was detained since 2004, could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said in a statement.

The Iraqis have demanded Shibani's release for seven months, after an Iraqi court found him not guilty of weapons-possession charges. The US military command refused to release him after his acquittal, an interesting if inconsistent position with American insistence on releasing Saddam Hussein after his conviction.

Obviously, the US kept Shibani as a bargaining chip, but to what end? Sadr has proven an unreliable partner in negotiations on more than one occasion, including after the Najaf compromise that saved Sadr from complete annihilation in 2004. The US has effectively marginalized Sadr during the surge, to the point where Sadr has not appeared in public in Iraq for many weeks. All this does is give Sadr back a little of the credibility he lost with the surge, a strange notion given the circumstances,

The US must feel that Sadr can help stabilize Baghdad, and he probably could -- but it depends on the kind of stability one wants for the Iraqi capital. To think that he can help bring peace and freedom to an area he once controlled through murder, intimidation, and organized-crime enterprises boggles the mind. Why allow the Mahdis to return to Baghdad as an organization under Sadr's control?

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Comments (11)

Posted by negentropy [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 6:19 AM

Who knows, perhaps releasing Shabani is putting a little bait out there for Mookie to take.

I like how Associated (with Terrorists) Press states "The breakup is an ominous development." Here I was under the impression that "divide and conquer" was a good strategy. No news really is good news to the AP.

Posted by PapaBear [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 6:36 AM

Now that it's beyond debate that Mookie and his forces are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranians, it should be easier to treat them as Iranian invaders.

Posted by Hermie [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 6:54 AM

With his movement now splintered and hijacked by his onetime benefactors, the Iranians, Mookie now has to either spend vast amounts of his now extremely devalued capital, or go after his 'disloyal' subordinates.

Releasing Shabani puts Mookie in a bigger bind: Shabani certainly is not one to look kindly at Mookie's bugging out to Iran while leaving him in US hands. The factions will have to align with Iran, Mookie, or a new 'leader': Shabani.

Posted by Rovin [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 7:05 AM

Petraeus should keep herding most of the Mahdi army straight into Iran. The only conditions for their return would be to integrate them into the Iraqi army or the French foreign legion's co-ed softball team.

Posted by rbj [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 8:35 AM

Let them go to Iran -- when they creep back over the border with their Iranian handlers it will be good target practice for our flyboys (& flygals?).

Posted by Achillea [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 11:10 AM

Why allow the Mahdis to return to Baghdad as an organization under Sadr's control?

Not sure that's what this does, especially since Sadr's scarper. The Sadr gang (I won't dignify them with the term 'militia') is splintering and we've just put a player back on the board that we've had in our hands for over 2 years.

Posted by brainy435 [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 11:33 AM

I agree with Achillea. Perhaps we thought we could deal with Shibani and are letting him go to try and wrest control of the militia from an absent Sadr.

Posted by Lew [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 1:54 PM

I hate it when these folks try to get too cute!

If what we're trying to do in Iraq is create a modern nation-state under law, then wouldn't one imagine that the right course would be to abide by the law. If this Shibani character is a crook, then arrest him and try him and hang him. Otherwise leave him alone!

The idea of jailing or releasing someone because you find it militariy or politically convenient for some immediate strategy, is short-term cute and long-term stupid. What it tells everyone is that if you can organize enough murderers and muggers, you'll get treated like a political asset instead of the common street-thug that you are. How does this help?

Posted by Lew [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 2:54 PM

Maybe on second thought, the goal really isn't to create a modern nation-state under law. Maybe in our "surge" to succeed we've redefined success. Maybe now what we've done is quietly move the goal posts closer, and all we want now is peace and stability instead of law and order.

If that's the case, then that leave's us free to do almost anything we find expedient on any given day. After all, Sadaam could deliver a long series of slow news days any time he wanted to, if that's how you define peace.

Like I said; short-term cute = long-term stupid!

Posted by Jack Okie [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 7:59 PM

Lew, you're reading an awful lot into this particular action. Since there's a war on, holding people doesn't necessarily mean there is any criminality involved. Remember, Lincoln suspended habeus corpus three times.

I would be surprised if Petraeus wasn't on board with this. Since it's his ball game, why not wait and see how it plays? For example, this could be a way to convey a message from the coalition directly to Mooky.

Posted by Lew [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 22, 2007 8:55 PM

Yup, you're right Jack!

I've been known to run down some pretty strange rabbit holes when I get too much idle time on my hands. We'll give the man some slack and see what happens.