Commentary

Mahdi Army Threat in S. Iraq

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has promised to cut the British troop presence in Iraq by more than half — leaving just 2,500 there by the middle of next year. During a recent visit to the country, Brown said that within two months the transfer of power to Iraqi forces in Basra would be complete.

Brown’s comments come nearly a month after U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker recommended the withdrawal of five U.S. combat brigades from Iraq next year, eventually bringing U.S. forces to the level they were before last February’s military “surge.”

But several weeks before the United States and Britain announced their plans for incremental withdrawal, Sheik Hazim al-Araji, an aide to the firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, announced on Iraqi state television that Sadr’s Mahdi Army would be suspending attacks against U.S. and coalition troops for the next six months in order to strengthen and reorganize the militia’s fighting force. Many in the Iraqi government welcomed the suspension of the militia’s activities. But to others the announcement seemed ominous, because according to one Iraqi military official, the freeze is simply a “tactical maneuver” coordinated with Iran.

The Iraqi colonel, who agreed to speak with Western reporters on the condition of anonymity, said that the six-month freeze will not matter “because the Mahdi Army is allied with Iran and is waiting for a signal from the Iranians to start something.” One signal that could trigger the militia’s unfreezing is a more unstable security environment, such as one that will be created later this year once U.S. and British military forces begin their drawdown from parts of Iraq.

If the Mahdi Army ends its cease-fire, there will likely be a gradual ratcheting up of violence following the initial drawdown of U.S. forces. While much of the increased violence is expected in Baghdad, another area of even greater importance would be the area in and around Iran’s current sphere of influence: oil-rich Basra in southern Iraq.

Following the redeployment of British troops in Basra from the city to their base outside earlier this year, rival Shiite groups have been battling for power in the region. In a conference call with reporters, U.S. Gen. James Dubik, commander of the Multi-National Security Transition in Iraq, said preventing the violence in Basra from spreading will be important not only to the province but to Iraq as a whole, since “so much oil comes from this region into the country.”

Just as importantly, Basra is Iraq’s second-largest city, produces nearly 1.5 million barrels of oil per day and serves as the country’s main port to the Persian Gulf and the strategically vital Straits of Hormuz.

But securing southern Iraq once the Mahdi Army regroups will also be both crucial and difficult because of the area’s strategic significance for U.S. and coalition forces.

According to Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, “attacking fragile U.S. supply lines that snake from Kuwait to Baghdad through heavily Shiite southern Iraq would be a low-risk, high-reward strategy for Tehran.”

Instead of acting directly, Iran can employ a “plausible deniability” strategy and use the Mahdi Army to disrupt the supply of weapons and ammunition into the rest of Iraq.

From mid-December 2007 through late summer 2008, the United States plans to withdraw five of its 20 combat brigades stationed in Iraq. That window of time will provide the Mahdi Army the opportunity to undermine the limited military gains acquired during the “surge.”

Despite the odds, President George W. Bush is committed to overturning the perception of the United States as a weakened power following the agonizing American pullouts from Lebanon in 1984 and Somalia in 1993. But given the level of violence in Iraq, the United States is regrettably placed in a Catch-22: withdraw from Iraq and risk appearing weak, or remain in the country while the violence bleeds us dry.

This war always required more time and more troops than the administration was willing to commit. The threat posed by a resurgent Mahdi Army emphasizes the degree to which those early failures have left the United States without the ability to control facts on the ground in Iraq.

Many American hawks are already advocating a military attack on Iran because of Tehran’s role in Iraq. But that would be a very bad idea. U.S. conflict with Iran would only exacerbate the region’s instability and accelerate the Iraqi government’s decline. Unlike Washington’s policy myopia in the months leading up to war with Iraq, it would be prudent to view a future course of action not simply from the angle of threats but from what will likely transpire after we act.

The prospect of a reactivated Mahdi Army working in concert with Iran is yet another reason why the United States should execute a prompt and complete withdrawal from Iraq.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.