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Abizaid: Militias 'Curse of the Region'

Speaking of the security problems facing Iraq and other countries in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), has called private militias “the curse of the region.” Regarding the militia problem in Iraq,

… Abizaid said the sectarian violence in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, is as bad as he has ever witnessed. If that violence is not halted, he warned, “It is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war.” But he also said that a violent period could be followed by the stability that Iraq needs.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Shi’ia and Sunni have to decide they love their children more than they hate each other, so that the level of violence can be tempered. He said the Iraqis who aspire to a better way of life must “seize the moment,” and he predicted that they would do so once they lose patience with the current security situation.

Both military officers said they do not expect Iraq to gravitate toward civil war because Iraqi government institutions are intact and the necessary diplomatic, political and military steps are being applied to bring the situation under control. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld , who also testified with Pace and Abizaid, said the U.S. role is to support the Iraqi government and, so far, it is holding together, as is the Iraqi Army.

Abizaid did express concern that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have trained rogue Shi’ia groups in Iraq. He also indicated that the Iranian government is paying some members of the private Mahdi army in Iraq. The general said it is vital to persuade groups who have pledged allegiance to militias to pledge their loyalty to the state, instead.

The Iraqi government will do what is necessary to bring the sectarian violence under control and end the death squads, Abizaid said. When pressed on this issue, he said U.S. military forces will work with the Iraqi security forces to eliminate known death squads.

While some Iraqis are fighting because they do not want to embrace a new government and some want to promote anarchy, Abizaid said, most of the Iraqis want a free, independent nation that is not dominated by Shi’ia extremist groups or by Iranian influences…

If a “civil war” is constituted by two factions within a society waging war against each other, then in order for a civil war to exist in Iraq, mainstream Sunnis and mainstream Shi’a would have to be fighting each other. This is not the case for the Shi’a, as the bulk of attacks on Sunni civilians by the Shi’a have been from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which is based on the radical Islamist Sadriya movement, named after Muqtada’s father and supported by Iran. This is less true among the Sunnis, among whom those with innocent blood on their hands are closer to the mainstream, although native Iraqi Sunni insurgent factions are responding positively to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s amnesty and reconciliation initiative.

Baghdad witnessed two separate waves of Shi’a protesters this week. The first, on Wednesday, engaged in an anti-terrorism protest in commemoration of the third anniversary of the murder of Muhammad Bakir al-Hakim, the former head of SCIRI, Iraq’s largest political party, and the brother of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who is currently the head of SCIRI and the ruling United Iraqi Alliance. Hakim repeated his call for the formation of local defense committees, emphasizing that they would be non-sectarian. He also repeated his call for the formation of a federal structure, including a provincial government for the Sunni-dominated areas in the center of the country. He identified foreign terrorists such as al-Qaeda and “Saddamists” as the primary enemies of Iraq. They also protested against Israel, and Hakim called for a cease-fire in Lebanon. (Reuters, Al-Sabaah, Al-Rafidayn).

Friday witnessed a second large Shi’a demonstration, this one promoted by al-Sadr and focused on support of Hizballah and criticism of Israel and the United States. The protest was without violent incident, although a van full of Sadrists exchanged fire with U.S. troops while on the way to the protest, and two Sadrists were killed. (Washington Post, Al-Hayat)

ThreatsWatch has reported several incidents over the past few weeks of U.S.-Iraqi operations against Sadr’s Mahdi Army in addition to ongoing operations against Sunni militants. MNF-I reports of four separate operations in the middle of the week against ‘death squads.’ While al-Qaeda targets are named as such, the phrase ‘death squad’ usually is used for Shia militia cells who engage Sunnis in vigilante or revenge attacks, although references to a death squad sometimes refers to native Sunni Iraqi groups. Of greater significance, if enforced, is the total ban on carrying weapons in the streets and public places issued by the Interior Ministry, as reported by the Iraqi newspaper Al-Sabaah.

Over the past two weeks there have been reports that Prime Minister Maliki would undertake a cabinet shuffle due to dissatisfaction among political factions with their portfolios. As reported Sunday in Al-Hayat, both the Sadr faction and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord are unhappy with the portfolio distribution. The article quotes a representative of the ruling UIA, which operates under the patronage of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, as saying that Sistani will not directly intervene in the selection of ministers, but that he insists that the selection strengthen the unity of the country and its security forces. The article does not say whether Maliki seemed inclined to grant the wishes of any specific faction.

Feedback

I certainly hope Gen Pace is right. I read Abizaid's comments before the Senate committee and they were disturbing indeed.

I've suspected for some time that we'd eventually go after these militias, but it appears that we should have done this a long time ago. Better late than never, but better hope it's not too late.

Either we get this situation under control and fast or we're going to lose Iraq. Worst case all or part of Iraq becomes an Iranian proxy state. That ought to concentrate our attention.

This is a big issue, and I'll be writing more about it soon. We've been going after Sadrist death squads, but it has been in piecemeal fashion.

To respond briefly for now: the worst case scenario, as I see, is not Iraq as a proxy state, but Iraq as a failed state, since this is possible but the former is not. Even if Sadr succeeds in breaking up Iraq, the Iranian political vision only holds sway among a minority of the Shia, both general population and religious leaders.