WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration’s support for the Iraqi government crackdown on Shi’ite militias risks drawing the United States into a dangerous confrontation between rival Shi’ite sects, analysts warn.
Washington has billed the security operation launched last month by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as a defining battle for Iraq between the rule of law and Iranian-backed outlaw militias dubbed by U.S. officials as “special groups” that thrive as criminal syndicates.
But analysts worry Maliki is using the crackdown to undermine his chief Shi’ite political rival, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who threatened open war unless the crackdown comes to an end.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced support for the Maliki crackdown and efforts to isolate Sadr on Sunday as rockets blasted the fortified Green Zone compound in Baghdad.
But analysts warn that Iraq could turn more violent with the approach of provincial elections in October.
“The great uncertainty is just how much this Shi’ite power struggle is going to be violent and how much will end up with elements the U.S. can work with,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group warned in November that the Bush administration’s one-sided courtship of key Maliki supporter, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, could create the foundations for endemic intra-Shi’ite strife by isolating Sadr.
Some analysts now say recent violence could jeopardize the fragile patchwork of U.S.-brokered cease-fire agreements that had helped reduce violence in Iraq until the recent flare-up.
“If the Maliki government is pursuing partisan domestic political advantage by whacking some cease-fire participants, then this is a huge threat to stability in Iraq,” said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Even if there’s no element to partisan politics in this, Maliki’s still playing with fire because his actions may not get interpreted as those of a disinterested nationalist.”
The immediate danger would be an unraveling of the cease-fire Sadr imposed on his own followers, a danger that appeared to increase over the weekend when the cleric threatened open war against the Maliki crackdown.
But even former Sunni insurgents, whose alliance with the United States helped drive al Qaeda in Iraq militants from the once restive Anbar province, could be drawn into the fray — especially if the Mehdi Army resumed activities in mixed Shi’ite-Sunnis areas, analysts believe.
“A resumption of Mehdi Army sectarian operations could lead to a general unraveling of cease-fires,” said Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.
Biddle said the main danger would be for militias of any stripe to conclude their cease-fire agreements with the U.S. military did not protect them from Iraqi government incursion.
“You’ve got over 200 leaders of Sons of Iraq groups — 80 percent of them Sunni — sitting on the sidelines wondering what’s going to happen,” he said.
“They could decide they can’t alone defend themselves against the Maliki government, and so join up and get back on the war path.”
The United States has described the Maliki crackdown as an operation aimed at small Shi’ite cells called “special groups,” which U.S. officials say pose a greater long-term threat to stability than al Qaeda.
Washington maintains that the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards is bolstering the special groups with money, weapons, training and direction, a charge Tehran denies.
U.S. military officials say the accounts of Iraqi Shi’ite detainees describe month-long paramilitary training courses at camps inside Iran provided by members of the Qods Force and Lebanese militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
Between 20 and 60 Shi’ite militants from special groups are trained at a time, the officials said.
But other officials emphasize that the United States has no direct proof of Iranian involvement.
“They may have connections to Iran, but nothing that can be proved conclusively,” said a U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Coalition forces are not witnessing the exchange of weapons or money.”
Independent analysts say Iran is providing material support to all Shi’ite entities in Iraq, including Maliki’s political allies, and suggest Iranian influence may not be of prime importance.
“I don’t think their role is central, I think it’s secondary,” said Biddle. “The Iraq war at the end of the day is an internal war, and none of these things would vanish if Iran got swallowed up by the Earth’s crust tomorrow.”