Patey warned that "the prospect of low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy. Even the lowered expectation of President Bush for Iraq a government that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself and is an ally in the war on terror must remain in doubt." He stressed that all was not lost, but his prescription for reversing the slide to civil war was a reminder of the growing challenge facing coalition forces in stabilizing Iraq. "If we are to avoid a descent into civil war and anarchy," Patey warned, "then preventing the Jaish al-Mahdi [the Mahdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr] from developing into a state within a state, as Hizballah has done in Lebanon, will be a priority."
In the current U.S. thinking, sectarian conflict is considered, if anything, more dangerous than the anti-U.S. insurgency; as a result, disarming the Shi'ite militias today is given equal priority to defusing the insurgency by making political concessions to the Sunnis. Prime Minister Maliki's government stands committed to both objectives, although progress has been negligible on both fronts. Ambassador Patey's Hizballah reference, however, is notable, not only for the similarities between the two movements, but also for the connection it draws between the crisis in Lebanon and the fate of Iraq.
The Mehdi Army, like Hizballah, is an arm of a mass popular movement rooted in Shi'ite mosques but providing a measure of security and welfare. Like Hizballah it has ties with Iran, although unlike Hizballah which was actually created by Iran Sadr's links are more recent. While his key rival for Iraqi Shi'ite support, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (currently the largest party in Prime Minister Maliki's coalition), was based in Iran during the Saddam years, Sadr's movement remained inside Iraq operating underground. And in the chaos that followed the toppling of Saddam, Sadr's movement quickly filled the vacuum in the vast Shi'ite slums that house more than half of Baghdad's population, organizing security and basic services and turning what is now known as Sadr City into a vast stronghold. SCIRI's Badr Brigade, although smaller, was trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard during its years in exile, and may be an even better organized Shi'ite militia than the Mahdi Army. It is integrated into some parts of the security forces, particularly the Interior Ministry forces, and has been deeply implicated in sectarian killings. It has also, on occasion, crossed swords with Sadr's men in the battle for supremacy among the Shi'ites.
Sadr's ties with Iran have grown steadily in the last couple of years, however, and he warned earlier this year that his forces would retaliate if Iran came under attack from the U.S. or Israel. His Mehdi Army fought two pitched battles with U.S. forces in April and August of 2004, both of which ended inconclusively with political deals. And like Hizballah in Lebanon, Sadr's movement, even as it maintains a private army, is now a key element of the democratically elected government.
But disarming Sadr's army may prove, if anything, even more difficult than disarming Hizballah in Lebanon. That's because the three-year campaign of terror against Shi'ite civilians by Sunni insurgents has led the community to see its militias, rather than the central government, as its only protection. As that violence escalates, the likelihood diminishes that these communities will support any effort to forcefully dismantle the militias. Nor can an agreement to disarm be easily orchestrated by removing the insurgent threat, since the branch of the insurgency responsible for targeting the Shi'ites is led by al-Qaeda in Iraq, the faction most implacably opposed to any reconciliation with the elected government.
Israel's campaign against Hizballah in Lebanon, moreover, has inflamed Shi'ite public opinion against the Coalition. Sadr has warned that his movement will not stand by passively in the face of attacks on Lebanon, and the popularity of that sentiment among Shi'ites was highlighted by the fact that more moderate voices such as Prime Minister Maliki and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani echoed Sadr's harsh criticism of the U.S.-British opposition to an immediate cease-fire.
Moving against the Shi'ite militias has always been a difficult proposition, but doing so at a point where Shi'ite public opinion is so openly hostile to the Coalition may be entirely implausible. Indeed, the key to disarming those militias is more likely to lie in a new political agreement with their party bosses, in conjunction with a wider national-unity power-sharing agreement capable of shrinking the base of the Sunni insurgency. But the mounting sectarian violence and the passions stoked by Lebanon make the prospects for such a deal right now more remote than ever.
Earlier this year, the U.S. had been poised to explore a new avenue in the quest to stabilize Iraq direct talks with Iran. Plans to talk were eventually scrapped amid mounting tensions over Tehran's nuclear program. But if tamping down sectarian violence by reining in the Shi'ite militias has become an urgent priority to prevent a civil war, the U.S. may yet have to reconsider the prospects for reaching agreements on the immediate future of Iraq with the Sadr movement and rethink its unwillingness to deal with Iran.