CTA Symposium: Iraq v. Mahdi Army
Fadhil, Ledeen, Peters and Roggio Join Discussion on Iraq, Basra and Iran's Hand
By ThreatsWatch | April 7, 2008
The recent offensive operations taken by the Iraqi government against the Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi - JAM) of Muqtada al-Sadr have received much analysis and commentary since the onset. Each of the ensuing analysis and commentary offerings have agreed that the Maliki government's military actions and the Mahdi Army response are revelatory in nature. But that is where the agreement seems to end, as there appears a divergence regarding precisely what has been revealed: Who has operated and enjoys the position of strength, Maliki and the Iraqi government and military forces, or the Mahdi Army forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, which operate at the behest of the Iranian Quds Force and General Qassem Suleimani?
We at the Center for Threat Awareness (CTA) believe the answers in the end are neither black nor white, but rather grey in nature. To engage the subject and make sense of the divergent analyses, ThreatsWatch has assembled a panel of experts.
Bill Roggio, Military Operations analyst of The Long War Journal, recently returned from another tour embedded with Coalition Forces in Iraq.
Ralph Peters, LTC (Ret.) US Army, Defense and National Security analyst and author who has reported from Iraq multiple times.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining us.
Bill Roggio, please open the discussion by briefly laying out the scope of operations and counter-operations taken recently, and tell us where things stand operationally at current.
Roggio: On March 25, the Iraqi security forces, under the command of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, launched Operation Knights Assault against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-back Shia terror groups in the port city of Basrah. The Iraqi forces met stiff resistance in Basrah as the whole of Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army rushed to fight the security forces. A brigade from the Iraqi Army apparently cracked under the offensive, and about 500 soldiers "underperformed or defected" along with about 400 police. The Iraqi brigade was only five weeks out of training; it is the Army's newest formation.
The Iraqi military immediately began rushing forces into Basrah; about 7,000 soldiers, special forces, and SWAT units were moved to Basrah to join the fight. Meanwhile Mahdi Army forces attacked in Baghdad and the wider South. US and Iraqi forces killed nearly 200 Mahdi fighters in Baghdad The Iraqi security forces quickly restored security in the cities of Najaf, Karbala, Hillah, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Al Kut, and Amarah with minimal US assistance.
Just as the new Iraqi forces began to arrive in Basrah and US and British forces were gearing up to augment the Iraqi military, Muqtada al Sadr, under orders from Iran's Qods Force, called for his fighters to withdraw from the streets. Sadr issued a nine-point list of demands, which included that operations cease. Maliki refused and Iraqi and US forces continued to move into Basrah and conduct pinpoint raids against Shia terror groups. More than 200 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 700 were wounded, and 300 captured during the six days of fighting in Basrah alone.
Maliki has said the military will continue to operate against the Mahdi Army, and US and Iraqi forces have kept Sadr City and Shula in Baghdad under curfew. Forces have been reported to be slowly moving into the Mahdi Army stronghold.
CTA: With that summary of the flow of battle in place, let's step back and take a look at the impetus for battle. There has been speculation abound as to what precipitated the move by Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki. Some suggest that it has been little more cause than settling political scores and establishing a political balance of power among the dominant Iraqi Shi'a parties and their militias. Others contend that the operations are simply an Iraqi-centric extension of the broader Coalition's efforts to track and neutralize the Iranian-backed Special Groups that are armed, trained and funded by Iran and Suleimani's Quds Force. Ralph Peters, what's your read on the impetus behind the offensive operations against the Mahdi Army and its timing?
Peters: I believe that the al Maliki government had multiple reasons for launching the Basra operation and related initiatives, from the clear-cut need to assert the state's monopoly on violence (which is going to be a long process), through score-settling and political jockeying, to very practical goals, such as wresting the port facilities in the Basra area from the militias and gangs who'd been using them as a cash cow. (I'm told by a "senior Coalition officer," that the key aim of taking over the ports has been largely successful; can't verify it, but the source is impeccable, and, if true, this would be key to all further efforts to assert the central government's authority in the south.)
I watched much of this from Panama, and I immediately wondered about the port facilities myself--they're just crucial--but was mystified when I heard no mention of them. All I heard (not least, from poor, old Nic Robertson of CNN, who resolutely refuses to understand military affairs after all these years as a "war correspondent") was wailing about the problems the government forces encountered. Well, there are always problems in warfare--especially, when a newly formed military is learning its trade--problems complicated, of course, by the complexity of Iraqi society. As one would expect, the media obsessed on two things: the fact that a few Iraqi units did, indeed, fail badly, and the mortar rounds lobbed into the Green Zone up in Baghdad (fired by Iranian-backed Special Groups). But there was no mention of the numerous Iraqi units that fought fiercely, nor any explanation that mortars, while difficult to use with precision, are so easy to fire as irritants in a general area that even a journalist could do it (and journalists--headlines--were the real target of those mortar rounds). Basically, the media told the story the media wanted to tell--and the story our enemies wanted it to tell--but not the full story.
I also have been bemused by some of the punditry since Moqtada al Sadr ordered a cease-fire, hoping his forces would live to fight another day (you don't go for a cease-fire when you're winning). Several of the same "military experts" who celebrated the disappointing Army/Marine Counterinsurgency manual published in late 2006 utterly failed to recognize that they got what they signed up for: One of the most frequently cited maxims in the manual is T.E. Lawrence's conclusion that it's better for our local allies to do things imperfectly themselves than for us to do things perfectly for them. Well, that's exactly what happened. The Iraqi security forces went for it. They got a bloody nose, but got the best of the fistfight. There were embarrassments, but also real gains. The Mahdi Army and related gangs suffered severe losses. How does that amount to failure?
An even deeper problem here, on both the left and right, is naivety about warfare. We're all conditioned to believe that perfect results can be achieved by the end of the movie. Well, I can find no war in history--not one--that brought perfect results. There are always disappointments, failures, frustrations and unintended consequences. As I wrote in an article for an upcoming issue of Armed Forces Journal, unreasonable criteria for "success" pose a greater impediment to us than either al Qaeda in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan. We don't know what we're jabbering about. If you want perfection, join a Buddhist monastery, but don't go to a war zone.
I'd give the Iraqi forces, overall, a solid B for their performance: They were able to deploy two brigades plus special operations forces to Basra on 48-hours' notice. That's very impressive--and as a Baghdad contact observed, it just would not have been possible a year ago. Yet, the media held the Iraqi forces to a higher standard than it did the Brits (rhymes with "quits"): the Iraqis actually fought, while the Brits dithered for five years, avoiding conflict instead of engaging to solve problems (while lecturing the rest of us how they alone knew how to do counterinsurgency warfare...well, as it turned out, Basra was a different proposition than chasing drunks in Belfast). The Brits gave Basra to the militias and gangs. Now the Baghdad government has to take it back. They made a pretty good, if far from perfect, start. How dare we focus only on the shortcomings?
Do we really want to lose? The first duty of those of us who assume the right to interpret events to the public is to make an honest attempt to know what we're talking about. No form of human endeavor is more complex than making war...and wars are won not by the most-competent military, but by the least-incompetent (and, sometimes, just the luckiest). I wish, just once, a star correspondent would focus on the difficulty and complexity, instead of implying that, were he or she in charge, things would be straightened out promptly. Instead, we got the pro-Obama version of Iraq yet again.
CTA: “Do we want to lose?” That is a question believed by many to unfortunately be perhaps less than rhetorical in nature. We at the Center for Threat Awareness have long held that the American public would be much better served and more accurately informed if we had more military veterans in a journalistic operation rather than journalism veterans in a military operation.
By the same token, much of the discussion Americans hear about the offensive against al-Sadr'd Mahdi Army and their Iranian masters is from an American perspective, with journalists observing from the outside in many regards; culturally, geographically and politically.
We are pleased to have with us Mohammed and Omar Fadhil, two courageous men who wrote of the conflict through their own eyes, as Iraqis from their homes in the midst of war. Omar, could you please share with us – refreshingly from an Iraqi's perspective – how Iraqis view Prime Minister Maliki and how they interpret his actions taken against Sadr and the various Iranian backed militias and special groups? How do they perceive the impetus and what outcome(s) are they hoping for?
Omar Fadhil: Without any doubt, PM Maliki's decision to put the government forces on the offensive in this long conflict is seen as a brave move.
I realize that there's a good deal of uncertainty, more outside Iraq than inside, as to how big a role patriotic motivations played in this particular stage of building the character of the current Iraqi government. But as an Iraqi I think that we're witnessing a process of awakening within the leading Shi'a parties; a transformation that involves renouncing former allies of the same sect that adopted violence—pretty much the same way as Sunni tribes renounced al-Qaeda.
While it's very likely that a future success in this campaign - if operations are to be resumed - would grant more power to Da'wa and SIIC in the south. This would be a positive gain for the country as a whole. Removing one of the biggest obstacles to democracy and rule of law must not be ripped out of the broader, national context or discredited as a maneuver for narrow partisan gains.
One key motive behind the decision to launch the operation at this time, as we pointed out in previous postings, is the desire of Maliki's Da'wa Party and Hakim's SIIC to weaken Sadr's movement prior to holding provincial elections in October. If we stop right here we could be happy with concluding that the government took a break from being sectarian only to become partisan in defining its goals and planning its operations.
However, there's more to say. If we look at the parts of the Iraqi political map from which support for the operation comes, we'll find that this support, by and large, comes from what we had identified as the moderate political powers, or moderate figures and groups within these powers across the three major components of the political spectrum. On the other hand the silence of a few parties and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who saved Sadr from capture or death in the ceasefire he brokered back in August 2004 in Najaf, can also be reliably interpreted as approval of the decision to take back the south from the gangs that have been actively seeking to hijack power through the use and threat of violence.
In other words, although it looked like the SIIC and Da'wa spearheaded the political part of the campaign, the decision as a whole reflects the desire of the moderate powers to neutralize the threat posed by Sadr's militia in order to create an environment where politics can be practiced in the closest possible manner to 'fair play'.
I believe Maliki deserves a C for planning but he also earned a B+ for courageous decision-making.
CTA: You mention Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's silence on the operations as a tacit approval of them, and this is both astute and important to be heard from an Iraqi perspective. Let's recall with clarity that what is now the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council was once the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq and heavily influenced by Iran – until the party (and its Badr Corps militia) openly rejected Khomeinist Iran in open favor of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and dropped “Revolution” from their name.
Recall also that Sistani issued a fatwa shortly after declaring that it was the responsibility of all Shi'a to protect – not attack and kill – their Sunni brothers in Iraq. This fatwa came, importantly, at the height of what the Western media commonly and with relentless gloom referred to as civil war amid the sectarian violence. This sectarian violence was instigated and fostered by both Iran and al-Qaeda – not grassroots Iraqis, per se - for the purpose of sewing instability in Iraq and sapping political support within the Coalition Forces' home countries.
Iran was behind the groups then and remains so today. Michael Ledeen, to what extent is Iran enmeshed within the Iraqi groups, particularly in guiding Muqtada al-Sadr? And, as a follow on, how decisive might the struggle be for Shi'a dominance between Grand Ayatollahs Khameini and Sistani in the fight for control of Iraq?
Ledeen: I just wrote an analysis of this for my Pajamas Media blog. [Editor's note: Dr. Ledeen references The Continuing Iran-American War at Faster, Please!] Ralph is right when he puts the anti-Mahdi Army fight alongside the rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone. It's all about Iran. As Petraeus was at pains to point out, the Green Zone attacks were done by Iranian-trained and sponsored groups who were shooting Iranian-made weapons. And the Iraqi Government went to war against Iranian proxies, who responded all over the country. This is all part of what Kim Kagan called the Second Iran-Iraq War. Actually it's the latest skirmish in the thirty years' war Iran has been waging against the United States.
I think the Iranians are doing badly. They put a lot of money and manpower into support for al Qaeda in Iraq, and AQI is on its last legs, destroyed in Anbar Province, cornered in smaller and smaller space elsewhere. That is reflected, I think, in the government's decision to go after the "Special Groups" and "Mahdi Army." My own information is that Moqtadah was fired many months ago, and sent to a monastery in Iran. The actual fighters are now commanded by lesser known terrorists trained and controlled by the mullahs. I was both surprised and pleased to see Maliki, who after all comes from an Iranian-sponsored terrorist party, the Dawa, and who has always been very careful to make nice to Tehran. All Iraqi leaders have to take out insurance with Iran, after all, and Maliki's very personal action--he went to Basra to show it was his decision and his show--suggests a degree of independence I hadn't expected to see.
As for Sistani, we saw that he dissed Iranian President Ahmadinejad a few weeks back, which again reflects the "facts on the ground." I think Iran is in trouble (and not just in Iraq; somehow or other they have failed to bring down the Lebanese Government and get their Syrian and Hezbollah proxies in control of Beirut), and the mullahs now have to decide whether to lay low for a while, or keep throwing the dice. Traditional Persian "strategy" suggests they will wait a while before making their next move, but Khamenei's medical condition (he's got a bad cancer, and wasn't even expected to live this long) and the hegemony of the Revolutionary Guards throughout the government suggest they will up the ante, and look for some spectacular success, such as killing lots of Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan, or perhaps some big terrorist event in Europe or even here. Who knows? But it's necessary to constantly put Iraqi events in a broader context, because we're in a regional war and our enemies are thinking in that context...or even a global context.
Mohammed Fahdil: Aside from the pure political and operational dimensions of the conflict, I'd like to add a few points about the societal issues from which the conflict originated.
It actually goes back to a conflict within the Hawza itself; between Arab and Persian clergies. I had heard Sadrists, with whom I worked at the ministry of health, complain all the time that the top positions in the Hawza have been always assigned to non-Arab Ayatollahs, and they lament that Sadr the father was under fire even from the SCIRI in Saddam's era. I recall that Mohammed Baqir Hakim, who was assassinated in Najaf in 2003 called Sadr the "tyrant's preacher".
Truth is that Sadr the father, I was told by people close to the movement, was not that far from the regime and had frequent meetings with leaders in the Baath Party. His problem was that he lost some of his mental wellbeing by the time he was released from prison and he suffered from psychotic eruptions. However, he did have something in common with Saddam in anti-American anti-Imperialist slogans. This made Saddam give him some margin of freedom in order to benefit from his spreading of anti-American sentiments. But Sadr overplayed his hand and crossed Saddam's redlines thinking he was safe enough to do so. This crossing of redlines in the form of mass-assemblies during Friday prayers brought the end of the Sadr-Saddam honeymoon.
This chapter of history could've gone forgotten with time but the change in Iraq in 2003 was too close in time to the assassination and so the lines that prayed behind Sadr were still largely in formation. The events of 2003 made for a good chance to revive the movement, only to find itself faced by other movements that had previously insulted its leader, like the SCIRI, and only to find itself marginalized in the GC formation. That situation was enough to spark the conflict within the Shia house.
The conflict is also a clash of classes to a large extent. A quick look at Sadr's strongholds reveals that they are simply the most impoverished; from Sadr city and Shu'la in Baghdad to Hayyaniyah and Khamsa Meel in Basra. Even in Najaf we find that most Sadrists dwell makeshift homes of tin cans and mud. In fact Moqtada offered what he didn't own in the first place, he offered the barren land around Najaf to his supporters among the poor from Nasiriyah, Diwaniyah and Samawa in order to change the demographics in Najaf. It's a form of conflict between the poor proletariat and a bourgeoisie that for centuries lived luxuriously (relatively) off the Khomos [donations to the shrines and notable descendants of the prophet Mohammed.]
When I was last in Najaf I saw this clash of classes obvious between rich owners of stores and poor owners of street stalls; most of the richer followed the SIIC whereas stall keepers were mostly pledged allegiance to Sadr. Every time store owners complained that sidewalks were blocked by stalls, the poor fended the complaint by warning that they are members of the Mahdi army that protects them from the greed of merchants.
CTA: As an Iraqi, what then are your observations from an operational perspective, Mohammed?
Mohammed Fahdil: Perhaps the biggest mistake in the battle, which did not end with victory in spite of the courage exhibited in the decision to engage the enemy, was Maliki's decision to personally lead the battle as the commander in chief of armed forces. Apparently he did this without proper consultation or in depth calculation of consequences. He forgot that by going there in person he made a commitment to go to the end. But the battle did not end in any meaningful way and so in spite of the determination in his words the prestige and credibility of the state were under threat.
Some people began to mock the operation calling it "Qadissiyat Al-Maliki" (in reference to Qadissiyat Saddam, the name Saddam used to call the 8-year war with Iran) others went as far as calling it the Rats Charge instead of Knights Charge. The reason is that the leader was there in person yet he couldn't finish the job.
It was evident from Maliki's words that patience was over and that the situation could no longer be settled with negotiations but it didn't work out as desired. Had Maliki not been the direct commander of the battle the outcome would have perhaps been considered a tactical win. But his presence turned the battle into a strategic campaign for which neither Maliki nor the troops were prepared.
CTA: The prominence of Iran within this discussion is clear. Bill Roggio, you have done excellent work explaining how Iran facilitates attacks on American forces as well as attacks on Iraqis and the rest of the Coalition. Please briefly explain the ratlines of the Ramazan Corps. What progress have we made in neutralizing this and other machinations of Iranian support?
Roggio: The US military began to meaningfully address Iranian influence in Iraq just prior to General Petraeus assumption of command of Multinational Forces Iraq in January 2007. Since the US began to take the Iranian threat seriously, the military has captured several key Iranian operatives working in Iraq, including a Hezbollah commander assigned to build the "Special Groups" – the name for the Iranian supported cells largely culled from Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army; a senior Qods Force officer, and the leader of the Qazali network and the network's operational commander. These men have provided critical details on Iran's network inside Iraq.
Iran worked through various militias such as the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps, the Qazali Network, the Shebaini Network, and a host of other surrogates to attack Coalition forces, Iraqi Security Forces, and rival political leaders. When groups like the Badr Corps and its political backer the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq broke from the Iranian sphere of influence and integrated with the government, the Iranian-backed militias, which have since been designated the Special Groups, began attacking them as well.
To streamline operations in Iraq, the Qods Force established a unified command, called the Ramazan Corps, and split Iraq into three roughly geographical regions. I obtained a detailed description of the Ramazan Corps' command and control network, storage and distribution facilities, training camps, and ratlines – or supply lines – into Iraq.
The Ramazan Corps is a military command with senior Qods Force generals in charge. They direct the flow of weapons, cash, and the deadly rockets, mortars, and explosively formed projectiles into the hands of the Special Groups working in Iraq. The Ramazan Corps also brings Iraqi fighters in Iran to train them, and runs training camps inside Iraq as well.
The Times Online just released information that the Ramazan Corps "were operating at a tactical command level with the Shi'ite militias fighting Iraqi security forces" during the recent fighting in Basrah. "Some were directing operations on the ground." This should come as no surprise to anyone following Iranian activities inside Iraq. Iran is fighting a thinly veiled, undeclared war against both the Iraqi people and the United States.
CTA: To follow on this we now turn to you, Col. Peters. Since late 2006 and throughout the entirety of General David Petraeus' theater command, our rhetoric, posture and actions against the Iranian machinations in the war in Iraq have become much more direct and assertive. Yet they continue to operate training camps and from them funnel into Iraq trained operators, weapons and cash along with other means of supporting attacks against the Iraqi government and Coalition forces. Are these not acts of war?
It is also my understanding that we know (or at one point knew) where these camps are. If this is so, what restrains us from employing our air power and leveling them to dust openly and in broad daylight? And as a follow on, are the Iranian-driven attacks considered tolerable? What is to be done?
Peters: I have to say that I'm pleased with the overall quality of this discussion and appreciate the insights offered by all the participants. I only wish more Americans were exposed to exchanges at this level of rationality.
As for Iran, it's important to step back and take a longer-term perspective. While I do worry about Iranian mischief-making in Iraq in the short-to-mid-term, there's no danger in the longer-term of a united, anti-Western Shia block of the sort Iran would like to lead. Why? Because Shia brotherhood will not be strong enough to overcome Persian racism toward Arabs, a sense that Persians are civilized and superior, while Arabs are backward and inferior. Mohammed noted the lack of equality and power-sharing within the Hawza, but that's a manifestation, not a cause. When it comes to dealing with Arabs, clergy or secular, the average Persian is hopelessly arrogant. That said, the Iranians are making plenty of trouble at present and intend to keep stirring the pot--but their dreams of a Shia empire dominated by Iran will crumble in the end.
Meanwhile, I've been baffled at our reluctance to retaliate more pointedly in the wake of Iranian provocations and Iranian-backed bloodshed. It isn't a matter of "bombing Tehran," but of going after cross-border targets affiliated with Iranian subversion in Iraq. We're still allowing Iran to get away with murder, quite literally. That disappoints the soldier in me; however, I have to acknowledge that none of us know what's happening in the secret war at the special-operations level and, furthermore, I suspect that General Petraeus is trying to do things in stages, to complete the defeat of one enemy at a time--and his efforts against al-Qaeda-in-Iraq have been a remarkable success (thanks, not least, to the terrorists themselves, who did such a fine job of alienating the Sunni Arabs who initially sided with them). Overall, I'm impressed with the methodical, relentless approach taken by Petraeus, so I'm inclined to give him more time on the Iranian issue. Of course, there also are election-year considerations and I suspect that the Bush administration doesn't want to give the opposition an "Oh, now we're fighting Iran, too!" hook for the campaign.
The last two things I'll say on this are, first, that the aggressive negativity of the reporting from Iraq remains inexcusable--there's no question but that the global media (including our own) is shamelessly partisan, anti-American and anti-Iraqi-government: For all of the al Maliki government's failings--and, God knows, they're beyond counting--it's accomplished more under difficult wartime conditions than plenty of developing-world governments have accomplished in decades...yet, favored dictatorships get a pass from the press, while Iraq's struggling democracy gets picked apart mercilessly. As I've pointed out elsewhere, the Iraqi legislators passed more significant laws last year than did our own Congress--and we, who inherited the Anglo-American tradition, have had eight hundred years of practice. The standards we apply in judging Iraqis are just plain unfair. Now, this doesn't mean we should excuse corruption--that greatest bane of humankind--or electoral cheating or the like--but it does mean that, while criticizing that which deserves criticism, we should be willing to acknowledge the difficulties this government faces and to give praise when it's earned. I go back to one of my initial points: A great many partisans, here and in the Middle East, want Iraqi democracy to fail.
The second point is that, in the end, the Iranian leadership network has to feel real pain, if we want them to stop disrupting Iraq. But inflicting that pain without exciting the wrong reaction from the people of Iran is a challenge that I believe is beyond the talents of our current administration. I long have believed that Iran and the USA are natural allies, geo-strategically, and that the problem is the present theo-kleptocracy and the (rapidly diminishing) Shah-era hangover, not all of Iran for all time. So any attacks would have to be very specifically--and accurately--aimed at the actual mischief-makers, at targets despised by the average Iranian, as well. Our basic challenge isn't how to strike Iran--we could do that easily enough--but how to strike Iran without doing far more harm than good. I'm less concerned about Iranian counter-attacks against Arab states and oil facilities (an inevitable asymmetrical response) than I am about clumsy U.S. actions strengthening the Tehran/Qom regime. And our leaders also have to bear in mind that, once you start something like this, you have to see it through--and, as the Iran-Iraq War demonstrated--the Iranians can take a lot of pain.
An ideal attack on Iranian targets would reduce the oppression of the average citizen, rather than increasing it, and would weaken the theo-kleptocracy, not renew its appeal. Always, always bear in mind that Persians are not only racists (listening to a Persian talk about Arabs is like listening to an Alabama cracker talk about blacks in 1908), but they're ferociously nationalistic (remember: Iran itself is a mini-empire with a wide range of minorities--Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, etc.--dominated by Persians). Twenty years from now, we want the Persians with us, not against us--because, twenty years from now, the Arab world is going to be an absolute disaster as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other fragile states come apart. Let's hope that, by then, Iraq is an anchor for stability in the Gulf and Iran is an ally, not an enemy.
CTA: Michael Ledeen, you have been a champion of the Iranian people for as long as anyone – including the Iranian mullah regime – can remember. Their liberty – and the end to the terror sponsoring regime that dominates them – is clearly in America's best interest as well as Iraq's, the region's and the rest of the world affected by state-sponsored international terrorism. How should we engage the Iranian regime? And more importantly, how can we best help the Iranian people to effect their own internal regime change?
LEDEEN: I agree with Ralph, that Iran and the United States are logical allies, and I'm sure that most Iranians concur. Tom Friedman once wrote that Iran is the only red state in the Muslim middle east; Iranians publicly mourn our losses on 9/11, for example. And of course they've taken over Beverly Hills--the new mayor is Iranian-American. It's a natural friendship. Iran has a long tradition of self-government, unlike most of the other "states" in that region, and in fact the Iranian Constitution of 1906 was a model for its time and place.
What we should aim for is a free Iran, an Iran in which the people get to choose both their system of government and their leaders. Iraq is a good model for this (and I hope next time round we don't let the UN draft the electoral law, which is a mess, thanks in large part to an Italian who more or less replicated the failed Italian system); first they ratified a Constitution, then held elections. In Iran, this is called "referendum," and every now and then someone calls for it. I've always liked that.
But of course the mullahs won't go for it, because they know they'd lose. If there were free elections in Iran, nobody with a turban would be elected to anything. So that regime has to come down in some other way. For the most part, the pundits and politicians have proposed two methods. The first is military attack. The second is spontaneous revolution, perhaps encouraged by sanctions, embargoes, etc.
I dread military attack against Iran. Ralph is right to talk about Iranian nationalism (and boy is he ever right about Persian contempt for the Arabs!), and the danger that we might inflame it by bombing the country. On the other hand, a year or so ago there was a poll that asked Iranians, "how do you feel about being bombed?" And the answer was: if you're going to bomb us to bring down the regime, that's fine. But if you're going to bomb us because you don't like the nuclear program, we won't like it.
As for revolution, there's a vulgar Marxist conceit according to which revolutions are caused by economic malaise. I don't believe that. I believe that politics is an independent variable, and that most revolutions succeed when they have external support. Like ours, like all the democratic revolutions we've seen in the past thirty-forty years. So I think we should support the Iranian revolution, openly and enthusiastically. I think right now is an excellent time. We are on the verge of defeating and humiliating Iran in Iraq. The Iranian people sense this. I wish we would say it in just those terms, instead of pretending to believe that "international pressure" will eventually bring about a change in the behavior of the regime. That won't work. We're in a great position right now. As Bill Roggio says, we've now got terrific intelligence on Iranian activities, and we're rolling them up. Maliki's newfound energy shows that, doesn't it? He would never dare to challenge Iranian proxies unless he were confident of victory.
Iran has been at war with us for nearly thirty years now, and we've never responded against them. Right now we're fighting them and their terror proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we're doing very well in Iraq and probably will be doing much better in Afghanistan soon (the Marines are coming...). And yes, Petraeus probably wants to fight them one country at a time. I think Bush wanted that too. But I think it's a sucker's strategy, because it gives the Iranians much too much initiative. So let's take it to them. Ralph is no doubt correct that we know where the Iraqi terrorists are trained in Iran (and in Syria, too); we should go after those facilities, either from the air or with special forces. We also know where those awful mines, IEDs, and so forth are assembled in Iran. Take them out. This is all legitimate self defense.
And then support the revolution: broadcast to the Iranian people, tell them what's going on. Explain to them that the mullahs have been defeated. Let them listen to successful revolutionaries from Georgia, Lebanon, Poland, the Czech Republic, and so forth, so they can learn the rules of non-violent democratic revolution. If the president says clearly that we want regime change in Tehran, and the Iranians see that we're moving against the terror network wherever it is, they will move against the regime even more vigorously than they are today. Just this afternoon, I was told that the Revolutionary Guards are organizing tours of the south--the area around Basra--for young Iranians, to indoctrinate them in Khomeini's ideology, to show them where the war was fought against Iraq. Those tour buses have been attacked by the (mostly Arab) tribes in the area. There is actual shooting, not to mention large demonstrations, all over the country.
All the conditions for revolution are present, save one: a base of external political and technological support. We must be that base. The Iranians need communications devices so that they can talk to one another: cell phones, satellite phones, laptops, servers. All the components of modern Information Technology. We've got it, we should get it to them. And we should also be calling on the free trade unions of the West to build strike funds for Iranian workers. Khomeini understood that back in the seventies, by the way; he smuggled in bags of rice to the workers (sometimes with guns in the bags) leading up to the overthrow of the shah.
Finally, thanks to Steve for organizing this very stimulating discussion, and to Bill and Ralph for their great work and their excellent thoughts. It's a pleasure.
CTA: The pleasure is ours, gentlemen. And the discussion has been as informative and clarifying as it has been engaging and lively.
In summary, what the discussion here has borne out are the conclusions that Maliki's Iraqi offensive had more than one impetus and that all roads to this latest isolated conflict in Iraq seem to lead back to the Iranian regime, one way or the other. In fact, as was pointed out within, it is being openly reported that Iran's Ramazan Corps was directly responsible for "directing operations on the ground" in Basra fighting the Iraqi Army and other Iraqi security forces.
The Iranian-designed and -supplied EFP's alone account for 10% of US combat fatalities since the 2003 invasion. So when the the discussion in this symposium arrives at a conclusion that the Iraqi fight with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is in reality a fight with Iran, it has neither done so in a vacuum, nor done so relying on recent developments alone, nor done so because the participants seek conflict with Iran. The impetus has long been Iran's.
And while the American public - let alone its military - surely does not desire conflict with Iran, it cannot ignore an antagonist that has taken the initiative to kill American military service members on the battlefield. The Iranian employment of proxies must not enable an American employment of denial.
The Iraqi government's decision to prosecute offensive operations against those Iranian proxies - namely the Mahdi Army - represents a level of both Iraqi independence and decisiveness as well as a seemingly diminished level of Iranian influence within the halls of Iraq's central government.
The pressure should be maintained and leveraged, exploiting the seam that exists in the fact that there is no "Shi'a unity" among Persian Shi'a of Iran and Arab Shi'a of Iraq. An increasingly frustrated Iranian regime should be met with open American support for the Iranian people, honing mechanisms through which the United States can empower the Iranian people to evict the regime which dominates them.
It is a high-risk, high reward endeavor, but the face of international terrorism - and the strength of many terrorist groups - would change almost overnight as terrorist groups and conflicts, especially in Iraq, would be starved of the now virtually free-flowing resources of the Iranian regime.
One thing is for certain; it serves no productive service to deny that the United States and Iraq are on the business end of a war being prosecuted by Iran.
On behalf of everyone at the Center for Threat Awareness and ThreatsWatch, thank you Bill Roggio, Ralph Peters, Dr. Michael Ledeen, Mohammed Fadhil and Omar Fadhil for your engaging and insightful participation in our Iraq v. Mahdi Army symposium.