Iraq Cease-Fire Over

The cease-fire that has kept the main Shiite militia mostly quiet for the past seven months seems to have unraveled. The US blames Iran.

The Mahdi Army’s seven-month-long cease-fire appears to have come undone. Rockets fired from the capital’s Shiite district of Sadr City slammed into the Green Zone Tuesday, the second time in three days, and firefights erupted around Baghdad pitting government and US forces against the militia allied to the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. At the same time, the oil-export city of Basra became a battleground Tuesday as Iraqi forces, backed by US air power, launched a major crackdown on the Mahdi Army elements. British and US forces were guarding the border with Iran to intercept incoming weapons or fighters, according to a senior security official in Basra.

The US blames the latest attacks on rogue Mahdi Army elements tied to Iran, but analysts say the spike in fighting with Shiite militants potentially opens a second front in the war when the American military is still doing battle with the Sunni extremists of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

[…]

On Tuesday, Rear Adm. Greg Smith, spokesman for US-led multinational forces in Iraq, blamed the elite Quds units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for supplying the 22 107-mm and 122-mm rockets that hit the heavily fortified area of Baghdad that is home to the US Embassy. “We believe the violence is being instigated by members of special groups that are beholden to the Iranian Quds Force and not Sadr…. Although we are concerned, we know that very few Iraqis want a return to the violence they experienced before the surge,” he says.

Admiral Smith says US and Iraqi forces were facing two distinct enemies in Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Iranian-trained and supplied special groups. But he adds, “AQI is still Iraq’s No. 1 enemy.”

There is growing concern, however, that Iran could respond to such US accusations. “This is pretty serious, and if the Iranians do not back down rapidly this will escalate,” says Martin Navias, an analyst at Britain’s Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College in London. “The US has a number of problems with Iran, mainly the nuclear program and its behavior in Iraq. There are many people in the Bush administration who want to hit Iran.”

While Iraqi troops fought with Shiite militants in Basra Tuesday, a contingent of Coalition troops, including British and US forces, mobilized at Basra’s border with Iran to prevent militiamen from escaping or smuggling in ammunition and weapons, according to a senior security source in the city who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his remarks.

The claim that “AQI is still Iraq’s No. 1 enemy” strikes me as extremely dubious, especially after months of claiming that the Surge has decimated that force and that Iraqis have long since rejected them.

One would think, too, that we’d have used the relative lull in violence of the last few months to secure the border with Iran, since that has always been a pipeline for anti-government forces.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. glasnost says:

    The US blames Iran.

    Not much critical thinking here, James. If you stop and read the quotes from various Sadrite officials, they seem to think that they have actual, specific grievances. Again, relying on media quotes, The actual plan as described by Sadrites was for ‘civil disobedience’.

    Even if Iran is taking advantage of the general bad atmosphere – or, for another hypothesis that springs to mind, SCIRI continues to push its luck – it seems to me that, assuming Sadrite complaints reflect actual reality, the US needs to blame itself for continuing prejudicial military operations against the militias during a long period of quote cease-fire unquote. Or the Iraqi government for same.

    Cease-fires rarely last when they become “you stop shooting at me and I will continue to chip away at your membership with raids, arrests, and assassinations.”

  2. Bithead says:

    Not much critical thinking here, James. If you stop and read the quotes from various Sadrite officials, they seem to think that they have actual, specific grievances.

    At the risk of landing square on someone’s sensibilities, so did Hitler. Every lie, after all, has a small…sometimes microscopic… kernal of truth at it’s center.

    My guess is that Iran is directly responsible for fanning those flames as you mention, and of course we know they’re providing weaponry. Add to that instability in Iraq is in Iran’s best interest, and you have your story.

  3. Bithead says:

    Oh… and before I forget, let’s not ignore the effect negative press coverage of Iraq has had on the insurgants.

    Researchers at Harvard say that publicly voiced doubts about the U.S. occupation of Iraq have a measurable “emboldenment effect” on insurgents there.

    Periods of intense news media coverage in the United States of criticism about the war, or of polling about public opinion on the conflict, are followed by a small but quantifiable increases in the number of attacks on civilians and U.S. forces in Iraq, according to a study by Radha Iyengar, a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in health policy research at Harvard and Jonathan Monten of the Belfer Center at the university’s Kennedy School of Government

    I’d say we’ve reached the tipping point of that cease fire because of the press here at home… and gee, gang, which party controls the press in thsi country again?

  4. tequila says:

    “Sealing the border” w/Iran wouldn’t do anything, beyond being pretty much impossible given the length of the border and varied incapabilities of Iraq’s security forces. When you can’t even control Sadr City, how are you going to “seal” anything off?

    Iran’s true patron in Iraq is not the Mahdi Army, but the ISCI and the Badr Corps, who are the prime instigators of this government “crackdown” against Sadr.

  5. Juho§ says:

    “My guess is that Iran is directly responsible for fanning those flames as you mention, and of course we know they’re providing weaponry. Add to that instability in Iraq is in Iran’s best interest, and you have your story.”

    It might be much more complicated.

    The US is arming one side in a shiite/shiite clash, the Maliki/Sciri/Badr security forces.

    The Badr Brigades were formed in Iran. Last month Ahmadinejad dropped by to kiss Maliki’s cheek in Baghdad. Maliki uses a private plane donated to him by Iran. When Ahmadinejad was in Iraq, there were also US-Iranian negotiations behind closed doors.

    My guess is that the US and Iran have some kind of agreement behind the scenes, or that Maliki is playing everyone else and hoping to come up as the victor.

    Why would instability in Iraq be in Iran’s interests? I think it’s more of a talking point than reality. In fact, instability in Iraq might have been in early Bush administration interests before the invasion to ensure the need of protection for their new client state, but since the situation is now out of US control I imagine they got more than they bargained for.

    Iran seeks some kind of security alliance in the region, independent of US energy interests. US will not have it.

    Also. Maliki (supported by the US) wants to federalize Iraq and gain Shiite autonomy in the Oil rich south. The US is not openly supporting the Idea, but they are supporting Maliki.

    The Sadrists are against splitting Iraq.

    So… maybe the US wants to split Iraq? Anyway, Iran is under threat of bombing by the US. You say that “Iran is responsible for fanning the flames…” I say the US is responsible, for attacking and invading a foreign country.

  6. Bithead says:

    Why would instability in Iraq be in Iran’s interests?

    Because it would cause the US to pull out faster than it might have, otherwise. Nature, you see, abhors a vaccum. And Iran would be in a prime condition and position to rush in and fill the govenmental and directional void left by the US leaving and the current Iraqi government crumbling.

    It seems to me that the left in this country… yourself included, if I’m reading your response correctly… has not considered that one.

  7. DC Loser says:

    Iran doesn’t want the US to pull out of Iraq. The Iranians love that we’re stuck there with the bulk of our Army, leaving few options for an attack on Iran. By keeping the threat of an insurgency in place, we can never feel secure enough to pull out.

  8. Bithead says:

    I’m not sure I buy that one, either, DC.

    While I agree that Iraq being unstable provides a bit of cover for Iran…

    Asuming it were stable enough for a US pullout, Iran would respond to a US attack by going after the thus unguarded Iraq, so as to provide the Islamic extremeists a place to train and to launch attacks from… which was one of the reasons for taking down Saddam in the first place, as you may recall.

    Iran knows that a quick pullout of the US from Iraq is the fastest way to get where it wants to be.

  9. Michael says:

    I’d say we’ve reached the tipping point of that cease fire because of the press here at home… and gee, gang, which party controls the press in thsi country again?

    So which is more important, a free press or potentially un-emboldened extremists? Also please don’t overlook the fact that Sadr’s forces aren’t “insurgents” in the same was Al Qaeda is, they’re more of a local militia. I don’t think they’re emboldened or not based on US press reporting because they’re generally less globally-concerned than Al Qaeda.

    As tequila points out, Sadr has never seemed to have a warm relationship with Iran, being opposed to Iran-backed Badr and SCIRI during the shiite/shiite violence. It seems unlikely that Iran is providing support to the Mehdi militia now.

    Because it would cause the US to pull out faster than it might have, otherwise.

    Given the US’s long history of saying we’ll leave when things are stable, and that we can’t leave because things are unstable, it’s a pretty amazing leap of logic to assume the exact opposite.

    Nature, you see, abhors a vaccum. And Iran would be in a prime condition and position to rush in and fill the govenmental and directional void left by the US leaving and the current Iraqi government crumbling.

    It seems to me that the left in this country… yourself included, if I’m reading your response correctly… has not considered that one.

    And you, and many others who spout this line, seem oblivious to the fact that Iran has already extended it’s hegemony over the Iraqi government. A US pullout would only remove the facade of US control. I dare say, Iran would probably be more efficient (though obviously less ethical) at combating Al Qaeda in Iraq.

  10. duckspeaker says:

    Iran would respond to a US attack by going after the thus unguarded Iraq, so as to provide the Islamic extremists a place to train

    Let me get this straight…Iran wants to replace the U.S. as the chief overseer of the Sunni/Shia, Shia/Shia cluster-quagmire, in order to provide Al Qaeda with a base of operations. Is that really your argument?

    which was one of the reasons for taking down Saddam in the first place

    Wrong. Saddam was taken out so that we could separate him from his mythical WMDs. If you slightly re-arrange your comment to read “one of the reasons for taking down Saddam was to provide extremists with a place to train and to launch attacks from”…then…Mission Accomplished!

  11. Bithead says:

    So which is more important, a free press or potentially un-emboldened extremists?

    How about a 3rd alternative… a press that thinks about the consequences of what it prints?

    No, actually, that’s being too kind. They know what and who they’re cheering for.

    Given the US’s long history of saying we’ll leave when things are stable, and that we can’t leave because things are unstable, it’s a pretty amazing leap of logic to assume the exact opposite.

    That kinda depends who is in power, doesn’t it?

    And you, and many others who spout this line, seem oblivious to the fact that Iran has already extended it’s hegemony over the Iraqi government. A US pullout would only remove the facade of US control.

    Hmmm. this sounds strangely like the argument I head about Vietnam. Given what we now know about that, you can perhaps better understand why I’m apt to dismiss it out of hand.

    Wrong. Saddam was taken out so that we could separate him from his mythical WMDs

    .

    That was another reason… and hardly mythical.
    But if you’ll look at it yet again, you’ll discover that his support for terrorism was in fact one of the reasons listed for going in.

    Let me get this straight…Iran wants to replace the U.S. as the chief overseer of the Sunni/Shia, Shia/Shia cluster-quagmire, in order to provide Al Qaeda with a base of operations. Is that really your argument?

    Of course! Do you realy think that the Sunni/Shia conflict will continue, once Iran comes into control? You know, or you ought to, that the conflict will have been decided in favor of the Shia.

  12. legion says:

    Because it would cause the US to pull out faster than it might have, otherwise.

    Wha? Bithead, that doesn’t pass even the most perfunctory smell test. We’ve been there for five years now, and Petreus has just given Bush the cover he needs to officially kick a pullout decision to the next President. Various GOP types have offered withdrawal timeframes anywhere from the 2010 region to the 2030s to the 2050s.

    But you’re really saying that if Iraq became peaceful all of a sudden, we’d have to stay longer? That’s nuts. DC has it right – Iran (and many others) are absolutely thrilled that we’re so bogged down in Iraq we can’t focus our attention or apply international pressure on any other subject on the planet.

  13. DC Loser says:

    Iran knows that a quick pullout of the US from Iraq is the fastest way to get where it wants to be.

    Iraqi observers already know the real power in their country is Iran. Maliki’s government is essentially an Iranian puppet. Why did you think Ahmadinejad showed up in Baghdad with all the fanfare and publicity, and wasn’t afraid to show his face (unlike VIPs from our country doing the “midnight landings at BIAP”). The Iranians don’t need us to leave to pull all the levers behind the scene. They already do.

  14. Bithead says:

    But you’re really saying that if Iraq became peaceful all of a sudden, we’d have to stay longer?

    You mean, after all we’ve been through, you’d actually trust them to remain so? Seems rather simplistic.

  15. Michael says:

    You mean, after all we’ve been through, you’d actually trust them to remain so? Seems rather simplistic.

    So, if there is violence we have to stay because it may bring peace, and if there is peace we can’t leave because it may bring violence? Seems like you ascribe to McCain’s 100 year Iraq policy.

    So, Bithead, under what condition, possible or otherwise, would you be willing to accept the US leaving Iraq?

  16. Bithead says:

    So, if there is violence we have to stay because it may bring peace, and if there is peace we can’t leave because it may bring violence? Seems like you ascribe to McCain’s 100 year Iraq policy.

    Explain to me how this situation is any different than Japan, Germany, etc, etc.

  17. DC Loser says:

    Explain to me how this situation is any different than Japan, Germany, etc, etc.

    I’m pretty confident that if we pull out of Germany and Japan right now, there’s little to no possibility of the Germans invading Poland or the Japanese invading China anytime soon (discounting the tourist hordes).

  18. Michael says:

    Explain to me how this situation is any different than Japan, Germany, etc, etc.

    The Germans and Japanese aren’t currently telling us they want us to leave their country. Or because we’re not managing checkpoints in Tokyo or Berlin? Or because we’re not arresting Germans and Japanese in their own country? Or because German and Japan have stable democratic governments that don’t need a hundred thousand US troops to maintain control? Or because we’re not supplying guns to both sides of an internal armed conflict?

    Explain to me how this situation is in any way similar to Japan and Germany.

  19. Bithead says:

    The Germans and Japanese aren’t currently telling us they want us to leave their country.

    Well, now, that, as with Iraq, depends on whom you’re talking to.

    Or because we’re not managing checkpoints in Tokyo or Berlin?

    Ever heard of Checkpoint Charlie?

    Or because German and Japan have stable democratic governments that don’t need a hundred thousand US troops to maintain control?

    And yet we’re there. And remember, Japan had sworn off War, and thereby was seen as being open to attack. We were and are there because of a percption of their being open to attack.

    I say again, how is that any different than the current sitrep in Iraq?

  20. Bithead says:

    I should also point out that it was 5 years before Japan had anythng even resmbling a stable government going.

    You really didn’t know this?

  21. DC Loser says:

    Ever heard of Checkpoint Charlie?

    Bithead, I don’t know when you’re kidding or serious. Are you still living in 1988? You gotta be sh*tting me. Yes, I was at Checkpoint Charlie in 1988, but that was almost a lifetime ago when the DDR existed. As for Japan, they’re not exactly defenseless. The mis-named Japanese Self-Defense Forces are probably the most technologically advanced and one of the most capable (perhaps after the ROKs) militaries in Asia. Their naval capabilities alone rival that of our WESTPAC assets.

  22. Bithead says:

    I’m pretty confident that if we pull out of Germany and Japan right now, there’s little to no possibility of the Germans invading Poland or the Japanese invading China anytime soon (discounting the tourist hordes).

    True… NOW…. not 30 or 40 years ago, however.

    Bithead, I don’t know when you’re kidding or serious. Are you still living in 1988? You gotta be sh*tting me. Yes, I was at Checkpoint Charlie in 1988

    Then you should understand the principle I’m driving at.

    And you should, I think, also do some investigation as to how long security was tended… inclduing the running of checkpoints in Tokyo, following the end of the war in Japan.

    Again, I ask, where’s the major difference? The principles and applications are the same.

    Their naval capabilities alone rival that of our WESTPAC assets.

    As I say, true NOW, not 30 or 40 years ago. And yet, we’re still there. When you get the logic for staying in Japan and Germany but not Iraq worked out, get back to me.

  23. DC Loser says:

    Well, Bit, you left out the reason why we’re still in Germany and Japan. It’s in OUR interest to be there, forward deployed on the periphery of Korea, China, and Russia. Don’t think the Chinese, North Koreans, and Russians haven’t noticed. Don’t you think we’ll be in Iraq for the long term for the same reasons? McCain has said as much.

  24. Bithead says:

    Well, Bit, you left out the reason why we’re still in Germany and Japan. It’s in OUR interest to be there, forward deployed on the periphery of Korea, China, and Russia. Don’t think the Chinese, North Koreans, and Russians haven’t noticed. Don’t you think we’ll be in Iraq for the long term for the same reasons? McCain has said as much.

    I know, but we’ve gotta keep this simple. Those countries being over-run certainly is not in our interest. No action is ever completely altruistic. Of COURSE it’s in our interests to be there. Even absent the need for the free flow of oil at market prices, it would still be in our interests to be there.

  25. Michael says:

    Even absent the need for the free flow of oil at market prices, it would still be in our interests to be there.

    How exactly?

  26. Bithead says:

    Do you honestly think they’d stop at Israel, whom they would surely attack if we were not in the area….?

  27. Michael says:

    Do you honestly think they’d stop at Israel, whom they would surely attack if we were not in the area….?

    Who, the Iraqis? No, I don’t think they’d be an immediate threat to Israel if we leave. I don’t believe anybody in Israel has made that case either.

  28. Bithead says:

    Who, the Iraqis? No, I don’t think they’d be an immediate threat to Israel if we leave. I don’t believe anybody in Israel has made that case either.

    Well, no, I was talking about AQ/AQI, Iran, etc. But to the point you made, consider the Palestinians. Would you consider that they’ve been causing serious issues for Israel on a military basis? And yet, they’re weaker in many respects than the nations surrounding Iraq. So, I think you under-estimate the utility of having force right to hand.

  29. Michael says:

    Well, no, I was talking about AQ/AQI, Iran, etc.

    Well, which one? Al Qaeda has had plenty of opportunity to attack Israel, why haven’t they yet? Because Al Qaeda doesn’t have any support inside Palestine. Hamas, Fatah, even Hezbollah, none of them like Al Qaeda. No matter what happens in Iraq, Al Qaeda will be no more likely to attack Israel than they are today.

    Iran has been using proxies to fight Israel for years, and I’m not sure that Iraq, with no border with Israel, would provide them another proxy.

  30. Bithead says:

    Well, which one?

    Any combo of them, and for the purposes of justfication of establishing a defense platform, it really doesn’t matter much, does it?

    Al Qaeda has had plenty of opportunity to attack Israel, why haven’t they yet?

    Because there ar other people, also funded by Iran, Syria, and other orgs, dealing with that.

    Al Qaeda has had plenty of opportunity to attack Israel, why haven’t they yet? Because Al Qaeda doesn’t have any support inside Palestine. Hamas, Fatah, even Hezbollah, none of them like Al Qaeda.

    But all ahve been known to work together when it beneffitted their short term goals. And with the side switching we see going on even today, we have solid indication that’s going to continue.

    Iran has been using proxies to fight Israel for years, and I’m not sure that Iraq, with no border with Israel, would provide them another proxy.

    A proxy to that end is not what Iran would ahve in mind. With their goals accomplished in Iraq… a full takeover… they’d not NEED a proxy.

  31. Michael says:

    Any combo of them, and for the purposes of justfication of establishing a defense platform, it really doesn’t matter much, does it?

    Um, yeah it kind of does, because defending against Al Qaeda is completely different from defending against Iran. Having an anti-missle system is worthless if Al Qaeda is going to attack, and, and border checkpoints would be worthless if Iran was going to attack. If you don’t know your enemy, you can’t win.

    Because there ar other people, also funded by Iran, Syria, and other orgs, dealing with that.

    So you agree that Al Qaeda isn’t an immediate threat to Israel. Good, we’re making progress.

    But all ahve been known to work together when it beneffitted their short term goals. And with the side switching we see going on even today, we have solid indication that’s going to continue.

    But they also all know their long-term goals, and the Palestinians know that if they let Al Qaeda in, they’ll never be free of their control. It’s the same reason Hezbollah doesn’t operate in Palestine.

    With their goals accomplished in Iraq… a full takeover… they’d not NEED a proxy.

    Iran already has a full country under their control, would having two suddenly give them more cause to directly attack Israel? I don’t see it.