U.S. military officers in Iraq often wonder about the possible presence of Iranian operatives in cities south of Baghdad like Karbala and Najaf, two key strongholds for Shi'ite militias thought to have links to Tehran. Many soldiers believe those two cities, home to more than 1.5 million people altogether, are where Shi'ite militants gather, train and arm themselves with help from Iran for attacks against U.S. forces farther north. Some intelligence even suggests that Iran's elite military force, the Revolutionary Guard, has opened training camps in the area for Iraqi guerrillas. But getting a clear picture of the happenings there and in other cities in that region is hard for one simple reason: U.S. troops don't go there anymore.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this week announced his plan to reduce the British force around the southern city of Basra from 5,000 to 2,500 by next spring. Drawing less attention, however, is the extent to which American forces have quietly withdrawn from the rest of southern Iraq. By so doing, the U.S. is ceding huge swaths of territory to shaky provincial governments that have to face increasingly powerful Shi'ite militias very much alone.
Small contingents of U.S. soldiers enter Karbala and Najaf only for brief visits with local officials these days, and much of the rest of southern Iraq has no American troops at all. Focused on saving Baghdad, U.S. forces keep up a regular presence with patrols and combat outposts chiefly around the southern reaches of the capital. Meanwhile, the drawdown of British forces in Basra where the troops have relocated to the local airport outside the city leaves yet another southern city, with a population of roughly 2 million, unattended by the U.S.-led coalition. That means virtually all of the vast, populous and oil-rich territory stretching from Karbala to Basra is up for grabs.
Since 2004, American soldiers have treaded lightly in southern Iraq, even though all the territory north of Basra has been ostensibly the responsibility of U.S. forces. An uneasy truce prevailed in the area between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army, the militia headed by Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Both sides seemed eager to avoid a repeat of the open clashes that erupted in 2004 in Karbala and Najaf, where Sadr's militia holds sway. So U.S. troops generally stayed away.
In the fall of 2005, U.S. troops handed bases in Karbala and Najaf to Iraqi military units. As of late 2006, the only U.S. soldiers in Karbala were a small team of Army trainers and civil affairs officers working with local officials and area police. That ended in January, however, when an attack by unknown gunmen left five U.S. soldiers dead. Since then, all the population centers in southern Iraq have become virtual blind spots for U.S. forces struggling to keep tabs on the weapons and fighters thought to be moving through the area. The military's provincial reconstruction teams carry on some work in southern Iraq. And in Diwaniya, a town east of Najaf, military trainers continue to work with local security forces. But for all practical purposes the Americans and the British have essentially left a region quickly becoming more turbulent in the wake of their departure.
In recent months, U.S. military officials overseeing southern Iraq have gotten sketchy information indicating that Iranian operatives may be entering Iraq to train Iraqi guerrillas at sites in and around Karbala and Najaf. American commanders in Iraq have long asserted that Iran operates guerrilla training facilities for Iraqi militants near Tehran. Indeed, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, is in reality a member of the Revolutionary Guards. Increasingly, U.S. soldiers are wondering if handlers from Iran's elite security forces have begun schooling and organizing fighters in the very areas American forces nominally control.
Capt. Brandon Thompson, an intelligence officer at a combat outpost roughly 30 miles south of Baghdad, says the reports are plausible but not proven. "I think it's very possible that individuals from Iran come in and train groups," says Thompson, an officer at Forward Operating Base Kalsu about 30 miles south of Baghdad. "But with no facts yet to back it up, the assessment would be that it's a good possibility."
Outwardly, the main cities in the south are in the hands of Iraqi authorities answering to the central government in Baghdad. In reality, Karbala, Najaf, Basra and the provinces they sit in are now a struggling ground between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, a rival Shi'ite militia also though to have links to Iran. American forces remained on the sidelines as the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade waged bloody campaigns against one another across southern Iraq this summer. On August 28, gunmen from the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade battled in the streets of Karbala for hours in fighting that left more than 50 people dead. And a series of assassinations of local leaders across southern Iraq in recent months is widely thought to be a campaign by the Mahdi Army to kill off Iraqi officials with links to the political wing of the Badr Brigade, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Even Iraq's most revered Shi'ite religious figure, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has been caught up in the violence; several of his aides have been gunned down near his home in Najaf.
Last weekend Sadr and the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, announced a truce. In a statement aired with much publicity, the two leaders pledged to cease violence. Whether the pact holds remains to be seen, especially in Basra. Tensions between the two factions there have lately been especially high following the British pullout to the airport outside the city. Regardless, U.S. forces are unlikely to play a meaningful role in shaping the outcome. With no evident plans to reenter southern areas, the U.S.-led coalition leaves the fate of some of Iraq's most important territory to others.