Good news: U.S. using Mahdi Army to guard Shiite shrine in Baghdad

Time for another of those crowd-pleasing Iraq posts that I know you guys missed while I was away. Consider this the flip side of the startlingly successful Patriquin plan in Anbar province, where, according to an LA Times report published this morning, U.S. recruiters now have to turn away men eager to enlist in the Iraqi police because the ranks are full. Not only are attacks down dramatically in Ramadi (today’s awful news notwithstanding), some members of the local auxiliary police force are working for free to improve their chances of joining the IP full-time later on. Others are taking literacy classes to that end.

Relying on the locals for security works well in an area where everyone belongs to the same sect and the local power brokers are on board. In a mixed area like Baghdad, where the local power broker is Muqtada al-Sadr? Eh. But it sounds like we have no choice.

The mosque of Imam Kadhim, the most revered Shiite shrine in Baghdad, is a tempting target for Sunni insurgents. To protect it, Iraqi and U.S. troops rely on the Mahdi Army, the same Shiite militia that Washington considers a threat to Iraq’s stability…

With tacit American approval, plainclothes militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr set up impromptu checkpoints and patrol alleys day and night near the mosque.

The Americans believe that tolerating a discreet role for the Mahdi Army, which U.S. officers refer to by its Arabic acronym JAM, is better than either picking a fight with the militia or taking the blame if Sunni extremists manage a repeat of the February 2006 bombing of another Shiite shrine in Samarra…

[Lt. Col. Steve] Miska’s efforts suffered a setback last week when Iraq’s parliament passed legislation banning U.S. troops from within two-thirds of a mile of the shrine.

The measure, proposed by al-Sadr’s representatives in parliament, was seen as largely symbolic and was approved the day after a gunbattle between U.S. troops and Mahdi fighters…

In the meantime, both American and Iraqi officials must deal with reality: the militia is so deeply entrenched in Kazimiyah and other Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad that it can be effective in maintaining security.

The pros: obviously, like the Sunnis in Anbar, the local JAM know the area and its inhabitants better than U.S. forces do. If jihadi plans are afoot around the shrine, they’ll spot it faster than we can. Cooperating with the U.S. in security matters might help domesticate some of these nuts, too. Miska makes a point in the article of distinguishing between “extremist JAM” and the more tractable types who are less concerned with drilling holes in people’s heads than with Shiite security. The key, he says, is making nice with the latter while refusing to compromise with the former. The cons: designating Sadr the protector of the Shiites’ holy places isn’t exactly going to hurt his standing in the community. (No surprise that his MPs introduced the bill to keep U.S. troops away from the shrine.) And depending upon how low you think he and Iran would stoop to instigate a civil war, it’s tantamount to letting the fox guard the henhouse. If AQ hits another revered place of worship a la last year’s Samarra bombing, the militias will have public support to run wild. Essentially, Sadr now controls the lever to make that happen: all his men need to do is look the other way if they see an attack coming. I’m skeptical that they’d do something that cynical, but then I was also skeptical that Iran might be giving money to Sunni jihadists and there have been numerous reports about that.

I’ll leave you with a report from CNN about Iraq’s Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, threatening to pull his MPs out of the government unless the constitution is amended to prohibit partition. He’s worried about Anbar being shunted off into its own country where it won’t get any of the oil revenue from the Shiite areas, but a report from Iraqslogger last month says he might have something even bolder in mind:

What is more interesting in Az-Zaman’s lead story is the fact that the Iraqi Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, is attempting to construct a new coalition, similar to [Iyad] ‘Allawi’s in several ways and carrying a comparable “anti-sectarian” agenda. Az-Zaman said that al-Hashimi has also entered talks with the Fadhila party and that he is engaged in a race with ‘Allawi to gather allies for a bid for the Prime Ministership.

A Sunni prime minister? When the current president and speaker of parliament are also Sunnis? Not anytime soon, pal.

Update (BP): The Lt Col mentioned in the story, Steve Miska, is the commander at FOB Justice and was the commander when Michelle and I visited Baghdad and FOB Justice back in January. You see him in the video of our foot patrol in Khadimiya.

When I heard about this AP story earlier today, I emailed Lt Col Miska and asked him what he thought of it. He didn’t go into a great deal of detail but did say that he’s working with the AP reporter to get it corrected. His main concern was how the story portrayed the US leaders as actively embracing a policy that includes the militia, when the truth is much more subtle than that. It is often difficult to explain the complexities of Iraq and particularly Baghdad in a soundbite or even in a news wire article. It’s just too complicated to capture easily. When Lt Col Miska briefed us on his battlespace shortly after we arrived at Justice, it took 3 or 4 intense hours and lots of slides to get all the shades and nuances of the battlespace across. It’s hard to capture that much information in a single wire article, even if the reporter has every intention of doing so.

So watch for a corrected version of the article. I’ll post a link to it if I see it.

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John Sexton 1:00 PM on December 05, 2022