A newly released Wikileaks document on Iraq and the new political alignment between Moqtada al-Sadr and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki both provide fresh evidence that Gen. David Petraeus’s war against Shi’a militias in 2007-2008 was a futile exercise.
The Wikileaks document is an intelligence report identifying the Shi’a commander who Petraeus said was the Iranian-backed rogue militia leader behind the kidnapping and killing of five U.S. troops in Karbala in January 2007. In fact, according to the leaked document, it was a Mahdi Army commander.
That new information about the Karbala operation confirms earlier evidence that in 2007 a political axis linking Iran, Sadr and Maliki was working to foil Petraeus’s assault on the Mahdi Army and to hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
That political alignment is not a reflection of Iranian dominance over Iraqi politics but of a convergence of interests among Shi’a actors in the Iraq conflict.
The same political alignment has now resurfaced as a pivotal development in the formation of a new Iraqi government. Maliki and Sadr have agreed to form a new Shi’a-dominated government, and Maliki traveled to Iran last week to meet Sadr and publicly thanked Iran for its help in bringing Sadr into his bloc of deputies.
The Maliki bloc now has two more votes than the Sunni-based al-Iraqiya bloc and hopes to bring in the Kurds to collect enough votes to form a new government.
The December 2006 intelligence report in the Wikileaks collection details a plan to kidnap U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. The report reveals that the militia commander in charge of the operation, Ashar al-Dulaimi, was a subordinate to a “senior Jaysh al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army] commander” named “Hasan” or “Salim”.
Dulaimi was a key commander of the Mahdi Army’s “secret cells”, which had been trained by Hezbollah officers working in cooperation with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Sadr had never hidden his military cooperation with Hezbollah. Despite Sadr’s open criticism of Iranian policy toward Iraq for its backing of the rival Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), he also sent troops to be trained in Iran.
The Mahdi Army plan to kidnap U.S. troops did not unfold in Baghdad but in Karbala, where five U.S. troops were abducted in a raid on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center Jan. 20, 2007 and later found dead. The U.S. military tracked Dulaimi to Sadr City and killed him in May 2007.
Petraeus’s spokesman, Gen. Kevin Bergner, later accused Iran of having directed the Karbala attack though it control of networks of “Special Groups” armed and trained by Iran. Petraeus maintained consistently that Iran was backing “rogue” units that had left the Mahdi Army.
The Wikileaks documents show, however, that Petraeus and his command in Iraq were well aware that al-Dulaimi was a Mahdi Army commander in charge of secret operations. The Petraeus “Special Groups” line was aimed at hiding the fact that the U.S. command was determined to destroy as much of the Mahdi Army as possible by claiming that it was actually attacking rogue Shi’a militias.
The New York Times story on Iran-related Wikileaks documents by Michael Gordon, which portrays the documents as reconfirming the Petraeus line on Iran-backed “Special Groups”, highlighted the intelligence report on Dulaimi but omitted the central fact that it clearly identifies him as a Mahdi Army commander.
The evidence also indicates that the Mahdi Army Karbala operation was done with the full knowledge of the Maliki government.
Col. Michael X. Garrett, then commander of the Fourth Brigade combat team in Karbala, confirmed to this writer in December 2008 that the Karbala attack “was definitely an inside operation”. Both the provincial governor and police chief were suspected of having collaborated in the operation, Garrett said.
Gov. Aqil al-Khazali was not a Sadrist but a member of Maliki’s own Dawa Party and was presumably acting in line with a policy that came from Baghdad.
That was a sign that Maliki, Sadr and Iran were still cooperating secretly, even as Maliki was ostensibly cooperating with the U.S. military against Sadr.
Maliki maintained ties with Sadr, because he needed his support. Sadr, who had 30 members in the Iraqi parliament, had supplied the key votes that installed Maliki as prime minister at an April 2006 meeting in the Freen Zone over which Iranian Quds Force commander Brig. Gen. Qasem Soleimani presided, according to a story by McClatchy newspapers.
The Mahdi Army had also played the key role in 2006 and early 2007 on behalf of the entire Shia Alliance in the pivotal battle of Baghdad against Sunni insurgents by carrying out an “ethnic cleansing” campaign against Sunnis in a number of neighbourhoods.
Sadrist deputies had left the government parliamentary bloc in September 2006, and Sadr attacked Maliki’s renewal of the United Nations mandate for the foreign military presence in November 2006.
In early 2007, however, Maliki’s national security adviser, Nassar al-Rubaei, told Reuters that they were negotiating on a proposal for a timetable for withdrawal to heal the rift with Sadr. He also expressed dismay at the U.S. military desire to “lure Sadr into direct confrontation”.
The Sadrists worked out an arrangement with Maliki under which U.S. troops could be kept out of Sadr City. Iraqi troops would take the lead in establishing security in the Sadrist enclave, and U.S. troops would not intervene unless there was resistance by the Mahdi Army.
But the U.S. military refused to honour the agreement and carried out large-scale sweeps and even airstrikes in Sadr City beginning in early 2007, claiming that they were only targeting those “Special Groups”.
The Mahdi Army command for secret military operations apparently planned their counter-attack in Karbala in the hope of having some leverage over the U.S. military in Iraq.
Even as Maliki was ostensibly agreeing to U.S. attacks on Mahdi Army commanders in Sadr City, Petraeus told author Bing West in September 2007 that the political link between Maliki and Sadr was far from being broken. “JAM [Jaysh al- Mahdi] has its hooks into the ministries,” Petraeus told him. “It took years to get this point, and it will take some time to get rid of it. Maliki is working his way through it.”
A series of moves from September 2007 to mid-2008 marked the unfolding of a strategy by Maliki, supported by Iran, to get Sadr to curb the Mahdi Army’s role in order to maneuver the George W. Bush administration into negotiating a timetable for total withdrawal.
Iran prevailed on Sadr to agree to a unilateral ceasefire in September 2007 and to end fighting in Basra and Sadr City in late March and early May 2008. The latter two agreements prevented U.S. troops from carrying out major offensives in both cases.
The quid pro quo for Sadr’s agreement to those ceasefires appears to have been the promise of a U.S. troop withdrawal.
Maliki’s renewal of the alliance with Sadr on the way to forming a new Shi’a government has brought strong protest from the Barack Obama administration. U.S. Ambassador James Jeffries has repeatedly said in recent weeks that Sadr’s inclusion in an Iraqi government is unacceptable to Washington.
But that protest has only underlined the fact that the United States is the odd man out in the Shi’a-dominated politics of Iraq.
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006.