Iraq Militias Fighting for Supremacy

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Khalid Mohammed / AP

Members of the joint Iraqi security forces a road block after unidentified gunmen open fire to threat pilgrims on their way to city of Karbala in neighborhood of Sadiyah in southwestern Baghdad, Iraq on Monday, Aug. 27, 2007.

In his speech Tuesday to the American Legion President Bush proclaimed, "For all those who ask whether the fight in Iraq is worth it, imagine an Iraq where militia groups backed by Iran control large parts of the country." That doesn't take a vivid imagination, however — the reality on the ground is that Iran-backed militias and their political allies already control large parts of the country. And as this week's violence in Karbala demonstrates, those militias are fighting each other for supremacy as U.S. and British influence wanes.

The sporadic clashes broke out Monday night in the Shi'ite holy city, which was packed with pilgrims celebrating the birth of a revered 9th century imam. Gunmen from radical cleric Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army were operating as a security force for the pilgrims, whose periodic marches to Shi'ite shrines attract attacks from Sunni insurgents. Once in the city, though, the militia clashed with gunmen of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC).

Violence escalated Tuesday, with Mahdi Army fighters scattered amongst angry crowds firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at Badr militiamen. That fighting reportedly began with Mahdi Army attacks on the local police. But in Karbala, as in many cities in southern Iraq, the local police are simply uniformed members of the local militia.

As the fighting continued, Karbala was put under curfew, pilgrims were ordered to leave the city, and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ordered in government troops to restore order. But fighting between Badr and the Mahdi Army broke out in other Shi'ite cities and in Shi'ite neighborhoods of Baghdad. The death toll, which already reaches into the dozens, is expected to rise as more bodies are recovered in Karbala.

Bringing the militias to heel is no easy task, considering that it's not clear that the supposed leaders can even control their own fighters. On Wednesday a spokesman announced that Sadr was freezing his militia for six months to bring rogue elements under control. It's difficult to imagine that Sadr would willingly neutralize the militia that aided his rise to prominence in 2004 and has been an important asset in his difficult and often violent relationship with the government and other Shi'ite factions. More likely he is responding to the bad publicity resulting from the scuttling of the commemoration in Karbala. He responded in similar fashion to this year's U.S. troop surge, pledging his full cooperation. As Americans in Shi'ite areas of Iraq can attest, the gap between Sadr's rhetoric and the actions of his militia is often vast.

Sadr's cagey response to the violence underscores that the armed groups battling in Karbala and other Shi'ite areas aren't simply external forces the government must bring under control — they are, in essence, the government. SIIC and the Sadrists dominate Maliki's increasingly tenuous parliamentary majority. And, while the militias had more than enough fighters on hand in Karbala to spark serious violence, the central government had to bring in reinforcements from outside the area to reassert control.

Meanwhile, the continuing American and British policy is to draw down, not increase, their military presence in southern Iraq. The British are in the midst of pulling out of the port city of Basra. The long-standing American policy has been to defer to Shi'ite religious sensibilities and keep as low a profile as possible in holy cities like Karbala and Najaf.

In what one senior American military official called a "schizophrenic" policy, Iran offers support both to the Mahdi Army and to SIIC, even as they fight each other. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad added insult to injury this week by observing that the Americans were leaving a power vacuum in Iraq that Iran and other nations would be glad to fill. The Iranian strategy of playing both sides may not be tenable in the long-term, but for now it gives Iran influence in southern Iraq that must be the envy of both the Americans and Iraqi politicians in Baghdad.