Not So Special Groups

  • May 7, 2008

The notion of "special groups"--JAM factions that supposedly have close ties to Iran's Quds force--is, in many respects, a useful fiction. Now there is no doubt in Dr. iRack's mind that there are some JAM elements that deserve the title, but the U.S. military has made a habit of describing all JAMsters who violate the "freeze" on armed activities declared by Moqtada al-Sadr last August as "special groups." In many respects, this is useful to provide slack in the system and prevent the Sadr ceasefire from completely shattering under strain. Yet it also creates a false impression that the majority of JAMsters fighting U.S. forces take their orders directly from the mullahs in Iran (much as the use of the label "Al Qaeda in Iraq" as a catch all term for a disparate and very loosely aligned collection of Sunni insurgent groups creates the false impression that most Sunni insurgents take their orders from Bin Laden or the foreign leadership of AQI).

More than ever, as fighting has escalated in Sadr City, the fiction of special groups has seemed especially fictional. It's been clear throughout the recent conflict that rank-and-file JAM have entered the fray. Now, to be clear, some of these regular JAMsters also receive Iranian weapons, but they are not trained, directed, or controlled by Iran. They are simply opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq and are willing to take weapons from anybody who will help them fight Americans. In this regard, Dr. iRack was especially struck by this account of a JAM commander in Sadr City who despises the Iranians but still takes their weapons:

It was sunset, and a pair of Iraqi soldiers were sitting in a roofless house by the Iranian border, awaiting orders. Suddenly, Abu Baqr recalls, his friend let out a gasp and fell silent, a sniper's bullet in his forehead. Abu Baqr couldn't help him, couldn't move for fear of being shot. He lay beside his friend's corpse until morning.

"How would you feel after that?" Abu Baqr asked. "You come out of that, you only come out bad."

Abu Baqr, now a commander in the Mahdi Army militia of cleric Muqtada Sadr, blames Iran for what happened to his friend more than 20 years ago during Iraq's war with Iran, just as he blames Saddam Hussein for that conflict.

He still hates Iran. But now, he said, he accepts its weapons to fight the U.S. military, figuring he can deal with his distaste for the Iranians later. So he takes bombs that can rip a hole in a U.S. tank and rockets that can pound Baghdad's Green Zone without apology or regret.

"I think that the Iranians are more dangerous than the Americans. I hate them and I don't trust them," he said in an interview over soft drinks. But the militia has limited resources, he said, and "therefore, when somebody gives you or offers help, it's hard to say no."

He laughed: "If it came from Israel, we would use it."

Abu Baqr's attitudes illustrate the pragmatism of a movement under siege. Elements of the Mahdi Army are engaged in an intense conflict with rival Shiite Muslim parties in the Iraqi government that benefit from their own close ties to Iran and, more advantageously, the assistance of America's superior firepower.

The attitudes of commanders such as Abu Baqr would seem to confirm U.S. accusations of Iranian meddling in Iraq. Although the extent of their relationship remains unclear, the commanders have embraced a hardened stance that may bode ill for the U.S. military.

These leaders confound U.S. attempts to categorize and differentiate between moderate fighters and what U.S. officers call the Iranian-funded and trained "special groups" that are believed to continue armed struggle against American forces despite a truce called by Sadr.

"It blurs out there," acknowledged a senior U.S. military commander who is not authorized to talk publicly about the various factions within the Mahdi Army, which is thought to number as many as 60,000 fighters.

Abu Baqr is a senior commander in a few neighborhoods of Baghdad's Sadr City district, responsible for at least 100 fighters. He is trusted enough by the movement that he has served as a mediator between factions in trouble spots in southern Iraq.

The price of survival

A year ago, in one of a series of interviews with The Times, his voice rose in anger when he talked of Iran's efforts to co-opt the Mahdi Army movement. He seethed about Tehran's drive to recruit fighters to bomb U.S. convoys at a time when Sadr was trying to halt such activities. He railed against militia members whom Iran had bought off.

At this time of immense pressure, however, he embraces the breakaway factions.

"Not all Jaish al Mahdi members are angels," he acknowledged, using the group's Arabic name. "Some have material interests in mind and they're greedy, and so Iran was able to hit on this particular angle and put them on its side."

But this is the price of survival. His positions shift tactically from moment to moment. He believes the militia should fight the Americans to the end, but even now he hints he is ready to strike a truce on honorable terms with the U.S. military if it agrees to halt its operations against the militia in Baghdad.

Until March, Sadr loyalists such as Abu Baqr had worked to enforce a freeze the cleric ordered last year on the militia's activities. But that month, everything fell apart when the government launched controversial military operations against Shiite militias in the port city of Basra and in Sadr City, the Shiite slum. The Sadr movement saw the operation as specifically targeting its fighters.

Abu Baqr stopped reining in fighters and once more switched to a war footing. "The balloon has burst," he said soberly.

This is important stuff. If the U.S. military was only fighting isolated special groups, the risks of things spiralling out of control and the Sadr truce completely breaking down would be less. But the way things stand now, regular JAM is very much engaged. They feel under siege and are fighting back with everything they have--and taking help from whoever is willing to provide it, including the Iranians. Given the importance of the August 2007 Sadr ceasefire to security progress during the surge period, this is a very dangerous moment in Iraq.

Update: More on the verbal gymnastics from the Los Angeles Times:

The U.S. military has tied itself into a verbal knot as it tries to avoid further inflaming tensions with Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr while confronting members of his Mahdi Army militia.

U.S. forces battle almost daily with Shiite militiamen in Sadr City, including Sadr loyalists, but commanders are careful to avoid blaming the Mahdi Army for the violence. . . .

The evolution in words used, or not used, by military officials when discussing Sadr and his fighters reflects the United States' turbulent relationship with the Shiite cleric and his own reinvention of himself as a political player. The United States, which in 2004 considered arresting Sadr in connection with the killing of a rival Shiite leader, began softening its tone early last year after Sadr agreed to not confront extra U.S. troops deployed by President Bush to Baghdad to quell violence.

The U.S. rhetoric took an ingratiating turn shortly after Sadr issued a formal cease-fire Aug. 29 that contributed to a sharp drop in the number of U.S. troop deaths.

In a statement released Oct. 1, Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker referred to Sadr on first reference as "sayyid," an Arabic honorific usually reserved for male descendants of the prophet Muhammad. . . .

Last month, "sayyid" dropped from the public lexicon of the U.S. military here, a sign of what officials consider Sadr's crossing of the line from budding peacemaker to potential troublemaker after he threatened "open war" against U.S. forces. . . .

But even if U.S. rhetoric seems to be shifting, the military still insists that Sadr's Mahdi Army is not its main problem, saying it is "special groups" that have broken away from Sadr's control. Those groups are trained and armed by Iran and not bound by Sadr's directives.

However, military officials acknowledge that mainstream Mahdi Army elements took part in the initial fighting that erupted March 25 against an offensive launched by U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces.

When Sadr called a halt to fighting March 31, his most loyal followers responded, officials say. Since then, they say, Sadr's mixed messages have been interpreted by some militiamen as a signal that it's OK to take up arms again. They cite Sadr's statement last month that his threat of "open war" applied only to American troops.

"Sure enough, we were in a firefight within a couple of hours" of that statement being issued, said Sgt. Erik Olson, an Army reservist in Sadr City. . . .

Whatever their commanders call Sadr supporters, U.S. troops on the battle-worn streets of Sadr City are not as inclined to steer clear of blaming the violence on Sadr and the Mahdi Army, commonly referred to by its Arabic-based acronym, JAM.