by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 11, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1428)
With reports of ebbing insurgent activity in the predominantly Sunni areas of western and north-central Iraq, there are also indications that armed resistance by Shi‘a groups is increasing. Attacks against US-led coalition troops in southern and south-central Iraq have been escalating over the past year to such an extent that top US military, Pentagon and state department officials argue that Shi‘a militias pose a long-term threat to coalition troops in Iraq. The growing momentum of the resistance in southern Iraq became clear last August when the British abruptly evacuated their main base inside Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, after coming under sustained mortar and missile attacks from Shi‘a fighters.
Few details have emerged so far about the makeup and identity of the Shi‘a groups responsible for this surge in attacks against the occupying troops. In general, coalition spokespersons, commanders and communiqués have tended to obscure, rather than clarify, reality with vague references to militias, “Iranian supported insurgents” and “terrorists.” When they point to a specific group by name, they mention the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi or JAM), led by Shi‘a alim Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr. They also claim that the rise in these attacks parallels increasing intra-Shi‘a violence as Shi‘a militias fight for power and influence throughout southern and south-central Iraq.
A quarterly Pentagon report on Iraq in September acknowledged that the attacks on foreign forces are spreading towards southern Iraq in tandem with soaring intra-Shi‘a violence, attributing the deteriorating situation in some southern provinces to the growing strength of the Mahdi Army. “An increase in its militia members has emboldened JAM to increase the frequency and intensity of attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces,” the report said. “This influx has occurred as militant elements moved out of Baghdad to avoid FAQ-related operations,” it added, adopting the acronym of the Arabic name of the security plan whose implementation coincided with the US’s “troop surge”: Fard al-Qanun (“operation imposing law”).
While a swelling body of available evidence leaves little doubt that armed fighters and cells associated with the Mahdi Army have been carrying out attacks against coalition and Iraqi troops in southern and south-central Iraq as well as the greater Baghdad area, smaller Shi‘a groups dedicated to the cause of armed resistance seem to have sprouted and taken root in other areas. For instance, in a series of videotapes released to the media, an underground Shi‘a group known as the Leagues of the People of Righteousness in Iraq (‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq fi al-‘Iraq) detailed and claimed credit for a string of attacks against US forces. The tapes show the detonation of explosive devices against US Hummer, Humvee and Scorpion vehicles and tanks, military positions and barracks shelled with rockets and mortars, face-to-face small-arms firefights, and American soldiers shot by sniper gunfire. The footage is shown in the videotapes with background marshal music and songs in which Shi‘a themes and symbols are prominent in lyrics that glorify the Iraqi resistance. Moreover, the Imam League of Hussein bin Ali Brigades (Kata’ib al-Imam al-Hussein bin Ali) has claimed responsibility for the attack on October 3 on the convoy of the Polish ambassador in Baghdad. This was a well-planned and well-coordinated ambush that included three timed roadside bombs and small-arms gunfire that wounded General Edward Pietrzyk, the ambassador. In a videotape sent to the offices of a number of media organizations in Baghdad, a spokesperson for the Leagues described the attack on Pietrzyk as a “natural reaction to the killings and detentions perpetrated by Polish forces against Iraqis in al-Diwaniyyah,” in the southern province of Qadisiyyah.
Claims of responsibility for similar attacks against coalition troops have also been made in videotapes and statements released by other Shi‘a groups, such as the Hizbullah Brigades in Iraq (Kata’ib Hizbullah fi al-‘Iraq), the Brigades of the Detachments of Rejection and Resistance in Iraq (Kata’ib Afwaj al-Rafd wa al-Muqawwamah fi al-‘Iraq) as well as the Abu al-Fadl al-’Abbas Brigades (Kata’ib Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas), the Karbala Brigades (Kata’ib Karbala’), and the Godly Brigades (al-Kata’ib al-Ilahiyyah) of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (al-Muqawwamah al-Islamiyyah fi al-‘Iraq). These videotapes and statements are peppered with Shi‘a metaphors, symbols and language (such as allusions and references to the Karbala tragedy and the hidden twelfth Imam of Ithna-‘Ashari Shi‘ism, as well as naming cells and units operating under the auspices of these groups after other imams); there are also quotes from the late Imam Ruhullah Khomeini and Ayatullah Ali Khamene’i. None of these groups seems to have developed a broad-based following even within the Iraqi Shi‘a community; they are largely local bands of fighters who have embraced and refined the classic guerrilla tactic of organising themselves and working as small cells.
Despite the proliferation of Shi‘a groups claiming responsibility for resistance operations against coalition troops in Iraq, there is probably a preponderance of followers of Muqtada al-Sadr among the Shi‘a insurgents. Some Mahdi Army fighters are apparently claiming credit for attacks under the names of bogus organizations in order to confuse coalition troops and Iraqi authorities. Far from being a homogeneous force, the Mahdi Army has from its birth in June 2003 been loosely organized into formations that resemble local protection and vigilante forces. It is more of a network, operating in a flexible manner and generally heeding commands and instructions from Sadr’s main office in Najaf, rather than a classic military force with a clear hierarchical command structure in which there are well-defined roles and lines of command to delegate authority with an eye to making optimal use of available resources. Under such circumstances, it is only natural that Sadr has frequently had difficulty in exerting direct control over the Mahdi Army. Over the past two years, the militia has shown signed of fracturing, giving rise to splinter death squads and local armed groups that act on their own. The New York Times quoted a coalition intelligence officer as saying that at least six major commanders and one third of the Mahdi Army were no longer answering to Muqtada’s command (September 28, 2006). Some splinter-groups broke away after having grown frustrated with Sadr’s decision to join the political process and the restrictions that such a move places on their engagement in direct action against foreign troops. Others saw themselves as defenders of Sh’ism and were driven by an intense desire for sectarian vengeance, especially when attacks on Shi‘a civilians began to become frequent.
It was concern over his increasing inability to control and command some of his lower-level Mahdi Army commanders and rogue elements that led Sadr in August to order a six-month freeze on armed action by his followers. Sadr issued his order after Mahdi Army fighters were involved in fierce clashes with Iraqi troops and gunmen from the rival Badr Organization militia during the 15th of Sha’aban festival, which cost the lives of more than 50 people and wounded up to 300 others. “The suspension means that the Mahdi Army will stop all armed activities against the occupiers or any other groups,” Shaikh Ahmad al-Shaybani, a senior Sadr aide said at the time. “The aim is to reorganize the militia but not to dismantle it. It is also an effort to root out the rogue elements.”
The escalation of armed resistance among Iraq’s Shi‘as is peculiar, especially in light of the fact that the Iraqi insurgency was until recently mostly confined to the Sunni Arab community in western and north-central Iraq. Immediately after the invasion of Iraq(March 2003), a host of factors combined to hinder the emergence of a significant and effective resistance movement among Iraq’s Shi‘a community and to limit armed resistance in the predominantly Shi‘a provinces to scattered, but steadily escalating, attacks against coalition troops. The widespread sense of relief and euphoria among vast segments of Iraq’s Shi‘as at the fall of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime was coupled with fears that armed resistance would eventually bring the Ba‘ath Party back to power and return the Shi‘a to their former status as an oppressed majority under a regime dominated by the Sunni Arab minority. Some senior Shi‘a ulama instructed their followers to give the occupying forces and authorities time to fulfil the promises made by the Bush administration, and engaged in tacit cooperation with the coalition in hopes of maximizing and consolidating the political gains of their community and asserting its interests in post-Saddam Iraq.
Nevertheless, a strong streak of distrust of US intentions and deep-seated, strident anti-Americanism hovered beneath the surface even among some Shi‘a groups that were willing to engage in open cooperation with the US, such as the Islamic Da’awah Party of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and the SIIC, formerly known as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Leading figures of these groups have publicly voiced harsh criticisms of the US presence in Iraq and emphasised the need for speedy withdrawal of foreign troops. As early as April 23, 2003, SIIC chairman Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, then deputy chairman of SCIRI, described the US occupation as “unacceptable,” adding that “there is no justification” for the continued presence of American troops in Iraq. None of the leading Ayatullahs in Najaf has been willing to meet with US officials, fearing that such a meeting might undermine their standing in their community. Despite their hatred for Saddam’s regime, most Iraqi Shi‘as, who were brutalized and traumatized by decades of Ba‘athist oppression, were not grateful for the Western effort to remove Saddam from power: many of them believe that Saddam and his brutal regime were no more than American tools anyway. Many fear that the removal of Saddam was a pretext to implement a hidden American agenda for Iraq and the region, rather than to simply put an end to his ruthless repression of the Iraqi people.
The patience of the Shi‘as with the foreign presence in Iraq began to wear thin because of their increasing unhappiness with the disruption of services, the deterioration of security, the worsening living conditions and, above all, the harsh and heavy-handed behaviour of coalition troops, such as mass arrests, searches, raids and the trigger-happy indifference to the lives of Iraqi civilians. As Iraq’s Shi‘as grew more impatient with the military presence in their country, their attitudes began to inch closer toward the positions of Sadr and other low-ranking ulama who have defined America and its allies as enemies of Iraq, such as Ayatullah Ahmad al-Hassani al-Baghdadi, who has issued fatwas in support of all modes of resistance, including armed resistance, and Shaykh Jawad al-Khalisi, who has called publicly for jihad to be declared against American troops. So growing numbers of Iraqi Shi‘as, especially angry and disgruntled young men, have been becoming more willing to support resistance activities and take up arms.
The escalation of the resistance by Shi‘a groups led General David H. Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, US ambassador to Baghdad, in October to introduce changes to their overall campaign for the country, which covers the period to summer 2009, to take into account the prospect of shifting the US’s military effort to focus more on countering Shi‘a militias. That means that the likelihood and potential scope of confrontation between the two sides will increase in the future. ForAmerica, the most worrisome scenario in Iraq, resentment among the Shi‘a majority boiling over into widespread armed resistance, is no longer a merely distant possibility. For Iraqi resistance groups, who bear scars from taking up arms against each other along sectarian lines, the main challenge remains whether they will be able to unite their efforts against the foreign military presence in their country.