Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Iraq militias a big US headache

Inad Khairallah
THE biggest challenge facing the US in Iraq today is how to dismantle the militia network that exists within the beleaguered country's security forces.
It might indeed be too late, for the militiamen have dug too deep into to the system to be rooted out. They represent the majority Shiite community and most of them belong to the Badr Brigade, the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The brigade was supposed to have been dismantled and incorporated into post-war Iraq's security forces. Indeed, they have been incorporated into the security system, but not dismantled. They continue to take orders from the commander of the Badr Brigade. They dominate the interior ministry, and are said to be behind the daily abductions and killings of Sunnis.
Many see it as the Shiite way of exacting revenge from the Sunnis for the decades of oppression they suffered under the Saddam Hussein regime. Eliminating leading members of the Sunni community also serves the purpose depriving the sect of an effective voice in the country's politics.
Wearing interior ministry uniforms, they storm Sunni homes and take away men, whose bodies turn up somewhere the next day with clear signs that they were tortured before being killed.
The US military is unable to check the militiamen, for they represent the authority of the state.
Short of an open confrontation, the US military has no option to address the worsening situation, and taking on the Shiites is the last thing that Washington wants to do at this point in time.
The interior minister argues that the regular ministry force has nothing to do with the abductions and killings and blames "rogue" gunmen for the violence. The US military has no means to challenge the assertion. But both sides know it is a lie and that the other knows it to be so.
The situation is all the more alarming since the militiamen are headed by pro-Iranians, and this constrains the US options while dealing with Iran in the wider regional scene.
A US Defence Department report drawn up in February conceded that the security forces "may be more loyal to their political support organisation than to the central Iraqi government."
Apart from the Badr militiamen, the two other major armed groups in the country are Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Sadr's militiamen are in charge of security in and around the sprawling slums of Sadr City in Baghdad. They are also present in many parts of southern Iraq, including Najaf where they are in charge of protecting the senior-most Shiite leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.
Moqtada Sadr, who is calling for an end to the US military presence in Iraq, is also a staunch pro-Iranian, but he is at odds with the SCIRI leadership.
Paul Bremer, who headed the US administration of Iraq shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, had sensed the danger inherent in the militias. He had ordered the dismantling of all militias in the country and offered them an option of joining the post-war army.
However, caught in the middle of the security and political chaos that followed the invasion of Iraq, Bremer was unable to enforce the order, and today the US is facing an impossible situation.
It was yet another monumental mistake that the US committed in Iraq after the disbanding of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi army. Many former army soldiers are now believed to be actively engaged in the raging insurgency there. They have formed their own area units in order to protect the community from the Shiite militiamen.
Caught in the middle of the confrontation are ordinary Iraqis, both Shiites and Sunnis.
Thousands of families have been displaced from their villages. They had no choice to pack whatever belongings they had and leave their ancestral homes in the face of ultimatums served by local militiamen.
The displacement poses a major humanitarian crisis for the community as well as the government and voluntary relief agencies.
Many of the displaced are now housed in mosques in Baghdad and the capital's outskirts, and they live in a perpetual fear of being targeted for attack despite the sanctity of the mosque they live in.
The US strategists are now pinning hopes that a proposed joint committee made up of top officials from the interior ministry (headed by a Shiite) and the defence ministry (led by a Sunni) could be mandated with reining in the militiamen.
However, it would seem to be a pipedream because there is no compelling reason for anyone to sign on to the proposal.
Simply put, the majority Shiites are basking in their newfound domination of the Iraqi society and they would not be dissuaded by the US military or any other force except their political leadership.
The Sunnis are feeling the heat and they are determined to put up as much resistance as possible against efforts to impose fait accomplis on them. They may or may not accept American assurance of good faith, but they know that they could not expect the US military to protect them from the marauding militiamen.
The American hope of restoring order in Baghdad is pinned on formation of a government after months of political haggling following elections in December. However, there is no guarantee that the new government would be able to create enough confidence among Iraqis in the midst of continued abductions and killings.
Some suggest that a civil war is already under way. Others believe the worse is yet to come, and predict a disintegration of the country. Yet some others are convinced that Iraq could be put back on its feet if the US plays its cards right with its Iraqi and regional allies.
On the ground, however, the US faces the formidable task of removing the militiamen from the scene if it were to hope for pacifying the Sunnis. In the meantime, the country is slipping deeper and deeper into an abyss.