Moqtada al-Sadr is back and is thirsty for the blood of American soldiers in Iraq. The Iranian-backed cleric says he will revive his Mehdi Army militia and starting on January 1, 2012, he’s coming after every single one of the 3 to 4,000 U.S. soldiers remaining in Iraq.
On October 4, all of Iraq’s political parties but one agreed that U.S. trainers should be asked to stay past the 2011 deadline for withdrawal. The Iraqi government did not, however, agreed to give them immunity from prosecution as demanded by the U.S. The faction dissenting was the Sadrist bloc, the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr. He has vowed to attack any American soldier on Iraqi soil come 2012, even if they are trainers and not combat soldiers. The Obama Administration envisions reducing forces to 3-4,000, rebuffing the request of General Lloyd Austin to have 14-18,000 troops.
Al-Sadr has shown what he is capable of. He led a radical Shiite uprising that nearly threw the country into civil war, and has positioned himself as a powerful force in Iraqi politics. At its height, his Mehdi Army was 60,000-strong, far more than the force Al-Qaeda in Iraq mustered. Since he disbanded the militia, splinter groups have kept fighting. He went to Iran around the time of the 2007 surge, where he began studying in Qom to receive the title of Grand Ayatollah. With that addition to his resume, he has returned to Iraq to expel U.S. forces and become the religious leader of the Iraqi Shiites.
The U.S. military detected a mobilization of Al-Sadr’s forces in the south earlier this year when they attacked rival Shiites. The rhetoric of Moqtada al-Sadr became more and more heated. He threatened to “escalate military resistance” and one of his aides said, “We are all time bombs and detonators at the hands of Moqtada al-Sadr.” His website published a letter from a supporter expressing his eagerness to become a martyr once the jihad is declared and that no public property or civilians will be targeted. Al-Sadr’s response was to thank him.
Iranian proxies increased their attacks on U.S. forces when summer began. Kataib Hezbollah, whose leader resides in Iran, used Iranian arms. Two other proxies, the Promised Day Brigade and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, took credit for a string of rocket and mortar firings. The death toll for the month was the highest since 2008. Defense Secretary Panetta and General Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, spoke cryptically about how they’d respond. In August, the Iranian-backed attacks significantly declined. The Iranians backed down, but they also must have sensed that it was better to wait until 2012 when there are less American soldiers and attacks will be more acceptable.
It is unknown if al-Sadr can assemble the force he did before, but Iranian-backed proxies can make up the difference. Kaitab Hezbollah numbers only 1,000, but its training by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and armaments make it a threatening force. Asaib Ahl al-Haq gets $5 million every single month, along with weapons, from the Iranian regime. Al-Sadr and these proxies will capitalize upon the anger of Iraqis who disagree with the prolonged stay of the U.S. military.
Moqtada al-Sadr can also cause massive political instability by undermining the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The massive protests in February against government inefficiency were a symptom of discontent. The Sadrists helped al-Maliki win a second term, but will never forget how he ordered the Iraqi military to crush the Mehdi Army. The Sadrists have 40 deputies in parliament and seven ministers in al-Maliki’s government. By withdrawing support for the unity government, he can cause a major political crisis and potentially bring al-Maliki down if he does not bend to his will.
The U.S. is putting together a covert campaign to deal with Iranian meddling as troop levels decrease. Reportedly, this will include secret operations to stop arms shipments to Iranian proxies. Some officials want the campaign to be regional in scope, targeting Iranian support to the Syrian government and terrorist groups outside of Iraq. The administration rejected this idea, and is limiting operations to Iraq.
The Iranian jihad could compel the Sunnis to again take up arms, perhaps embracing militias and Islamic extremists like Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The New York Times interviewed Iraqis around the country and found that many are afraid of Iranian domination. As a result, Iraqi public opinion has warmed up to the idea of extending the stay of American forces. However, this is not a large majority and so Iran’s proxies will have plenty of anger to use to their advantage. Iraqi Shiite opinion is very hostile to Iranian meddling, but a desire to expel U.S. forces among could override this hostility for some. Much will depend upon what the pro-withdrawal Shiites feel are appropriate means and whether it is worth rewarding Iran with greater influence.
Iraq gets little attention these days, but if Moqtada al-Sadr and his Iranian patrons have their way, that will suddenly and dramatically change beginning on January 1, 2012.