The United States is stepping up the war in Iraq. For almost four years, it has been fighting the Iraqi Sunni community. Now it has started to confront the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist Shia cleric who leads the powerful Mehdi Army militia.
It is a very dangerous strategy for the US. It risks alienating the Shia without gaining the support of the Sunni. It brings it into conflict with the democratically elected Iraqi government in Baghdad, whose views and interests are ignored by Washington.
US and Iraqi soldiers yesterday kicked in the door of the Iraqi deputy minister of health, Hakil al-Zamili, a Sadr supporter. He was led away in handcuffs, accused of being implicated in the deaths of several government officials in Diyala province, and siphoning off money to the Mehdi Army. Employees of the Health Ministry fled in panic as troops stormed their headquarters.
In June 2004, the US and Britain solemnly returned sovereignty to an Iraqi government. It was always a deception, since real power remained with the US. But in the last few weeks, Washington has increasingly treated the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an irrelevant pawn which it now humiliates on an almost daily basis. In January, eight US helicopters swooped on the long-established Iranian office in Arbil, the Kurdish capital, and arrested five officials. President Bush has announced that Iranians in Iraq deemed a threat to US personnel can be killed. This seems to open the door to an assassination campaign. On Sunday, soldiers from an Iraqi commando unit in Baghdad under strong US influence kidnapped an Iranian diplomat.
Bizarrely, US policy in Iraq is now very similar to that of the Baath party whom President Bush used to denounce so fervently. The US and the Baath both see the not-so-hidden hand of Iran as being behind the Shia militias and political parties. The Baath is by far the most anti-Iranian party in Iraq.
Since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it has had to rely on the support of a Shia-Kurdish alliance. It has attempted to put in power so-called “moderates”, effectively Iraqi politicians reliant on the US, but they won few votes in the two elections in 2005.
Could the US ever gain the support of the Sunni, the 20 per cent of the Iraqi population who lost power when Saddam Hussein fell in 2003? It is this that makes the terms offered by Abu Salih al-Jeelani, a Sunni military leader, so interesting. The US is not going to agree to withdraw as demanded, but Washington has long wanted a dialogue with the Sunni resistance.
It may be that, observing the increasingly anti-Shia and anti-Iranian trend in US policy, the insurgents are testing the water to see if there is common ground with Washington. The insurgent leader calls for “dissolution of the present government and the revoking of the spurious elections and the constitution”. It was in these elections that the Shia and the Kurds demonstrated that they are 80 per cent of the population. The constitution foresees a highly federalised Iraq.
In the Sunni strongholds of Baghdad, there may be more fear of Shia militiamen and the police commandos of the Interior Ministry than there is of the US army. Attacks on the latter have become less frequent. But the one uniting factor in the Sunni resistance is that all, nationalist and Islamic, are in opposition to the US occupation.
For the moment, the Sadrists want to avoid responding militarily to the American offensive against them. They hope that it will be seen as a US attack on the Shia as a whole. Whatever Washington may say about the Mehdi Army death squads, the Shia community see their militiamen as their one defence against Sunni car bombs and suicide bombers. These have struck again and again in crowed Shia markets over the last few months, inflicting horrific casualties.
The Middle East was destabilised when President Bush first invaded Iraq in 2003. The US midterm elections and the Baker-Hamilton report calling for talks with Iran and Syria were a chance to start defusing the crisis. This opportunity has now passed. It is very unlikely that the US will succeed in crushing the Sadrist movement, with its strong support among the millions of Iraqi Shia. Nor is it likely that the US will be able to stabilise Iraq while at the same time seeking to destabilise Iran and Syria.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.