US troops in Iraq are
Tehran's 'hostages' By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - For many months, the
administration of US George W Bush has been
complaining that Iranian meddling in Iraq is a
threat to the country's stability and to US
troops. The irony of this publicity campaign over
Tehran's alleged bid to undermine the occupation
is that Iran may well be the main factor holding
up a showdown between militant Shi'ites and US
The underlying reality in Iraq,
which the Bush administration does not appear to
grasp fully, is that the United States is now
dependent on the sufferance of
Iran and its Iraqi Shi'ite political-military
allies to continue the occupation.
and a half years after the occupation began, the
US military is no longer the real power in Iraq.
As the chief of intelligence for the US Marine
Corps revealed in a recent report, US troops have
been unable to shake the hold that Sunni
insurgents have on the vast western province of
But the main threat to the
occupation comes not from the Sunni insurgents but
from the militant Iraqi Shi'ite forces aligned
with Iran, led by Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army.
The armed Shi'ite militias are now powerful enough
to make it impossible for the US occupation to
Gone are the days when the US
military could be so cavalier about Muqtada's
forces that it deliberately provoked a major
confrontation with him in Najaf in April 2004.
That was when he was believed to have 10,000
poorly trained troops.
Since then, US
officials have avoided giving any estimate of the
Mehdi Army's strength. But according to a report
published last month by London's Chatham House,
which undoubtedly reflected the views of British
intelligence in Iraq, the Mehdi Army may now be
"several hundred thousand strong". Even if that
estimate vastly overstates his troop strength, it
reflects the sense that Muqtada has the strongest
political-military force in the country - because
of the loyalty that so many Shi'ites have to him.
The Mehdi Army controls Sadr City, the
massive Shi'ite slum in eastern Baghdad that holds
half the capital's population. But even more
important, perhaps, it holds sway in the heavily
Shi'ite southern provinces, and as Muqtada knows
well, that gives him a strategic position from
which to bring the US military to a standstill.
Patrick Lang, former head of
human-intelligence collection and Middle East
intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency,
explained why in an important analysis in the
Christian Science Monitor of July 21: US troops
must be supplied by convoys of trucks that go
across hundreds of kilometers of roads through
this Shi'ite heartland, and the Mehdi Army and its
allies in the south could turn those supply routes
into a "shooting gallery".
Lang noted that
the supply trucks are driven by South Asian or
Turkish civilians who would immediately quit. And
even if the US military used its own troops to
protect the routes, they would be vulnerable to
ambushes. "A long, linear target such as a convoy
of trucks is very hard to defend against
irregulars operating in and around their own
towns," Lang wrote.
It would not require a
complete cutoff of supplies to make the US
position untenable. A significant reduction in
those supplies would begin a "downward spiral",
according to Lang.
US officials and the
government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
realize that Muqtada is too powerful to be dealt
with by force. When Iraqi forces raided Sadr City
last month accompanied by US advisers, Maliki
denounced the operation on television and promised
"this won't happen again".
Last week, a
"senior coalition official" admitted to the
Washington Post that "there's not a military
solution" to the Mehdi Army.
But the Bush
administration and the military in Iraq still
appear to believe that there is some way to
contain Muqtada's power. They have not yet
accepted that Muqtada has both the intention and
the capability to bring down the US occupation.
Yet Muqtada has made no secret of his
intentions. In an interview with the Washington
Post published on August 11, his top deputy,
Mustafa Yaqoubi, said, "If we leave the decision
to [the Americans], they will not leave. They'll
stay. To get the occupiers to leave, they need [to
make] some sacrifice."
The Shi'ites have
never forgiven the US for its "betrayal" in
calling for an uprising against Saddam Hussein
after the 1991 Gulf War and then standing by as
Saddam slaughtered thousands of Shi'ite militants
who took up arms. Most of them never supported the
current occupation in the first place.
Wayne White, principal Iraq analyst for
the US State Department's Bureau of Intelligence
and Research, recalls that polling done by the
department soon after the US occupation began but
never made public showed that a clear majority of
Shi'ites were already opposed to it.
Growing anger at US military atrocities,
combined with a rising sense of power in the
Shi'ite community, have made Muqtada's readiness
for a showdown with the US occupation forces
By last spring, the
political atmosphere in the Shi'ite community was
seething with hatred of the US and support for war
against the occupation forces. In a May 6 story,
Borzou Daraghi of the Los Angeles Times quoted a
spokesman for the Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi
Moderessi in Karbala, known in the past as a
moderate, as saying the slogan at Friday prayers
is "Death to America." The ayatollah reported that
people were preparing for a military showdown with
the US, saying, "The Americans won't leave except
by the funerals of their sons."
and his followers are already preparing for a
showdown with the US occupation forces, the only
factor that appears to be restraining the Mehdi
Army now is Iran. After all, Tehran's interest
lies not in forcing an immediate withdrawal of US
forces, but in keeping them in Iraq as virtual
hostages. The potential threat to US forces in
Iraq in retaliation for an attack on Iran is
probably Tehran's most effective deterrent to such
Meeting with Maliki last week,
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said,
"We hope that one day the Iraqi nation will regain
its rightful place and take the financial and
human capital of the country into their own hands
with the withdrawal of the foreigners."
the University of Virginia a week earlier, former
president Mohammad Khatami answered a question on
Iraq by saying the immediate departure of US
troops would create instability.
be surprising if Iran were not urging Muqtada to
hold off on attacking the occupation forces until
after the Bush administration had either reached a
broad political agreement with Tehran or had been
replaced in two years by an administration that
would do so. Only Iran's ability to persuade
Muqtada to hold off on his effort to end the
occupation can prevent a violent confrontation
between Shi'ite militants and the occupation
forces. But Bush's advisers may still not
understand how fundamentally the power equation in
Iraq has shifted.
"They don't think like
that," Patrick Lang said. "They think they are
still in charge."
is an historian and national security policy
analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance:
Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam,
was published in June 2005.