The battle for Sadr City

Out of view of the U.S. media, American forces have been continuing an escalation in violence in Iraq that is claiming more lives.

Fighting that broke out first in Basra in southern Iraq in April, between the Mahdi Army of Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr and the Iraqi government backed up by U.S. forces, has spread elsewhere around the country--in particular, to the massive Sadr City neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Michael Schwartz is the author of a forthcoming book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context, to be published later this year by Haymarket Books. He talked to Eric Ruder about how to make sense of the current situation in Iraq.

Iraqis in front of buildings demolished during U.S. attacks on Sadr City (Wissam Al-Okaili | AFP)Iraqis in front of buildings demolished during U.S. attacks on Sadr City (Wissam Al-Okaili | AFP)

ACCORDING TO the Pentagon, last year's surge produced a period of relative calm in Iraq that has now come to an end. What's the reason for the recent escalation of U.S. operations?

THE SURGE ended last summer, and the U.S. then began a new strategy of making alliances and tacit or explicit ceasefires with the Sunni insurgents on one side and the Mahdi Army on the other.

Even American policymakers are admitting that much of this decline in the fighting is the result of those two developments--the ceasefires with the insurgents, which they named the Concerned Citizens Groups, and the ceasefire with the Sadrists.

The latter was announced as a unilateral ceasefire by the Sadrists, but it wasn't. The Sadrists said they weren't going to put up strong resistance to incursions into their areas, and what the U.S. then did was stop the strong incursions. The U.S. would go in and look for certain people, but they didn't do house-to-house searches with long lists of suspected Mahdis.

As a result, a lot of the violence declined--because most of the violence in Iraq has always been the result of American patrols, incursions and attacks on various areas of the country controlled by the resistance.

What else to read

Michael Schwartz's book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context will be published later this year by Haymarket Books.

His articles appear regularly on TomDispatch.com, an indispensable source of information on the occupation of Iraq and the war on terror, as well as Huffington Post.

Michael runs a valuable e-mail listserve with news and analysis on Iraq and U.S. policy in the Middle East. To subscribe, send an e-mail to [email protected], with the message: "sub iraqviews-l" (you may add your name if you wish).

Another helpful source of information and analysis on the war in Iraq is Juan Cole's blog Informed Comment.

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq describes his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story.

So the decline in violence was actually a result of the abandoning of the strategy of the surge, which initially had involved huge formations of American troops--supported by as many Iraqis as they could find to fight with them, which was always a limited number.

By last summer, they backed off and sought formal and informal ceasefires. All along, people who watched the situation closely said the calm that followed these ceasefires was unstable. Most of the commentators I read, such as Pepe Escobar, spotted it right away. A lot of mainstream reporters even--beyond Patrick Cockburn--were saying that this was a very tense situation.

No one even wanted to call it a peace. They said it was a ceasefire, a truce, an armed truce--in which each area was controlled by militias. And the one thing that unites all of these militias is they have a deep hatred for the government, and--at the least--a deep suspicion of the Americans, if not a deep hatred.

On the other side, the American military was very well aware that these forces were not going to be their long-term allies, that this was a temporary situation. They knew that at some point, they would have to do something that would allow the U.S. occupation--or the Iraqi government that is the client of the U.S. occupation--to go in and actually control these areas, rather than allow them to be controlled by either the Shia insurgents, mostly the Mahdis, or the Sunni insurgents, now being called the Concerned Citizens Groups, the Awakening Councils, or the Sahwa.

There was always this instability, and it seemed only a matter of time before one side might break the truce, or the U.S. would make its move to try to "pacify" the country as a whole.

The offensive against the Sadrists in Basra was something that may well have been planned. There's some convincing evidence that the U.S. and the Iraqi government had agreed to carry out a military attack on Basra.

When the offensive began, there were complaints by the U.S. that the Iraqi government went in without U.S. permission. If you look closely at it, though, U.S. military officials were saying they really were involved, because they did the logistics, they did the artillery, they had the tanks, and they had advisors with every group that went in there. But they had thought this attack was going to take place sometime later, and it hadn't been fully planned at the time it took place, which may, in fact, be true.

What was the attack about? Juan Cole had an excellent article at the time of the attack, and he wasn't saying anything that other people weren't saying, but he expressed it beautifully. He said that what we were seeing was a military attempt to prevent the loss of an election in October.

In Basra province, Maysan province and probably several other provinces in the south, the Sadrists were poised to win, and win overwhelmingly, in the upcoming provincial elections. They were going to oust both the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Dawa from any kind of leadership positions in these local provinces--and especially in Basra, which controls the oil port and is the location of the largest functioning oilfields.

This created the prospect of a transition from a local government that was ambivalent toward the American occupation, though quite hostile to the central government, to a local government that was hostile to both the Americans and the central government.

This new leadership would call for the U.S. to leave as soon as possible and for a complete change in the national government, both in terms of personnel and the policies the national government was pursuing--and not just the policy of being allied with the U.S., but also of supporting the further weakening of the federal government, the privatization of oil and other key issues.

The military invasion of Basra was designed to prevent this election from handing over power in the Basra province to essentially insurgent forces.

What happened in the course of the battle, however, was that the Iraqi troops either abandoned the fight, went over to the Sadrists or were routed, depending on which units you look at. Pretty soon, it was turning from a situation that was supposed to clean out the Sadrists to a situation in which the Sadrists were expanding their control in Basra and in new areas, and proving once again that they're really the key Iraqi fighting force in the country as a whole.

The U.S. and Britain both joined the cause, brought their troops in, carried out heavy bombing and annihilated key areas of the city, "rubble-izing" them in the tradition of Falluja. It turned into another U.S. attack on an Iraqi city, the results of which were mass devastation and huge numbers of casualties.

At this point, lower-level administrators in the Maliki government intervened by going to the Iranians to ask them to mediate a ceasefire. The Iranians agreed, and the negotiations took place in Iran behind the Americans' back.

The resulting agreement was that the Sadrists would say that they weren't going to fight anymore, in exchange for the Iraqi government and the U.S. ending their attempt to capture the city militarily and suspending door-to-door searches for Mahdi Army people in Basra.

It's hard to tell what's going on in Basra right now. There are some reports that there are still some attempts to rout the Mahdis out of their strongholds. But my hunch is that not much of that is going on, and the final result of all this is that Basra is both still sympathetic to (and fundamentally under the leadership of) the Mahdis in many areas of the city--enough so that the Mahdi Army can lay claim to citywide leadership as soon as there is the possibility for it.

Part of what happened in Basra is that the Mahdis organized uprisings in various parts of the country, because that's the traditional guerrilla way of fighting back against a full-scale assault--try to take advantage of all the other areas where you can fight, while trying to melt into the population where you face overwhelming military strength.

As the fighting subsided in Basra, the U.S. and its Iraqi allies decided they were going to try to finally mount an offensive against the strongest and most powerfully organized Sadrist area of the country, which is Sadr City in Baghdad.

The U.S. invaded Sadr City--they tried to come from all sides, but they eventually settled on invading from the south towards the north. Now, they're trying to separate off a section of Sadr City using cement barriers and there's an ongoing battle.

Within that battle, it's pretty clear that, as usual, the Iraqi troops sent to fight with the Americans have been inadequate, and many of them have handed over their weapons to the Sadrists. Some of them have gone over and begun to fight for the Sadrists, but in general, the Iraqi units have collapsed.

Of course, the Americans always have overwhelming firepower and therefore can win any particular battle, and as a result, they have marched into Sadr City and begun to erect these huge cement barriers, which have become so commonplace in Baghdad.

These barriers are really critical because they make the area that's surrounded into a social and economic basket case. It's impossible for people to carry on their lives. People can't visit their relatives, kids can't go to school, people can't get jobs, food has difficulty getting in and out, and you can't run a business inside these walls unless all the supplies and all the customers for the business are also inside the walls, which is almost never the case.

You get a drastic economic situation. So, as bad as things are in Sadr City, this will make them magnitudes worse.

U.S. forces are trying to put up the wall and protect it, and the Sadrists are trying to knock it down.

The Sadrists' goal in doing this is twofold. One, they're protecting people inside the community from the economic destitution that these walls create. Two, they're protecting themselves militarily, because if the wall is successfully erected, then a house-to-house search means the U.S. can find all the fighting-age men, presume them to be Mahdis and effectively wipe out the community--because they will detain or kill these people.

Then the community will be made up of what the U.S. press calls "civilians." "Civilians" are kids too young to fight, women, and men too old to fight. The rest are presumed "insurgents." That's what the fight in Sadr City is about from the Sadrists' side.

WHAT DOES the fighting mean in terms of the Iraqi capacity to resist the U.S. occupation? Has the U.S. offensive enhanced the influence of Sadr, who is probably the most consistent opponent to the occupation?

IRONICALLY, I think that those of us who oppose the war and think a lot about it tend to underestimate the power of the American military. We've seen the American military defeated or at least frustrated so many times in Iraq that you begin to assume the Iraqi people, and the armed resistance in particular, will never give up and can never be defeated.

I think we have to be cautious about that, because each new offensive carries a degree of devastation that is very hard to get your mind around. The kinds of things that are happening to people in Sadr City, as miserable as they have been before and after the invasion, are horrible.

Their shelters are being destroyed, and large numbers of refugees are exiting from those areas. The level of misery is tremendous, and it could be that this kind of onslaught will eventually drain the willingness of people to stand up to the American military. I don't exclude that possibility.

Even now, there's still a very strong resistance in Falluja, but what the U.S. did to Falluja also inflicted a terrible price. As we look at this being applied now to Sadr City, you have to ask how much the Iraqi people can stand.

But at the same time, the reverse of what I said is also true. Once you get a few weeks or months past them, each of these events appears to have strengthened the Sadrists.

The Sadrists have consistently argued that nothing good can happen until the Americans are out of the country. They're the most consistent nationalist leadership in Iraq. These events strengthen them because as the Shia become more disillusioned with the Maliki government, the place they go is to the Sadrists, who have a long history of standing up to tyranny.

What's taking place also strengthens the possibility of an alliance between the Sunni insurgency and the Shia insurgency against the American presence. I think it makes it somewhat more possible, but there are still divisions that keep them apart.

There was a very interesting and positive meeting between Sahwa leaders (mainly Sunni) and Shia leaders (mainly Sadrists) to talk about a united platform for the removal of the current government and its replacement by a nationalist one, in favor of a strong government in two ways--reversing federal decentralization and directing the use of resources to reconstruct the country, and in favor of expelling the United States.

This was back in January, but nothing came of it. Similar meetings have happened in the past, but the beginnings haven't developed into ongoing collaboration.

In 2006, there was an orgy of sectarianism going on in Baghdad, and the Sunnis were really getting wiped out. This resulted in Baghdad basically becoming a Shia city under the leadership of the Sadrists.

In the midst of all that, the Sahwas or Awakening Groups--which are basically insurgent groups, although they weren't active insurgent groups everywhere--finally decided they had to do something about the jihadists in their ranks who combine Sunni fundamentalism with the tactics of al-Qaeda.

They had always been uncomfortable with the jihadists, considered them a cancer in their communities and often fought with them.

As early as 2004 in Falluja, these insurgent groups had reached out to the U.S. to help them with this project. They went to the U.S. military leadership and said, "Don't attack us. If your problem is Zarqawi, we'll get his group out of Falluja--expel them, even deliver them to you if you want--in exchange for not attacking us." And the U.S. military replied, "Absolutely not, you're as much an enemy as Zarqawi, maybe more."

But by the middle of 2007, with the surge accomplishing primarily an increase in violence and the level of resistance rising during the preceding months, the U.S. began to listen to what some of its generals had been saying earlier: "Why don't we make this deal with the Sahwas? We'll get a ceasefire and get rid of the jihadists, and then we only have the insurgents to deal with."

They started in small areas of Anbar province, making deals with the Awakening forces. The deal was very simple--an armed truce where the insurgents would be given control of areas that they already essentially controlled. Instead of the U.S. sending armed patrols in there, looking for insurgents, busting down doors, fighting battles and bombing buildings where they met resistance, the U.S. would leave these communities alone.

The U.S. said, "If patrols do go in, they won't be looking for anybody, just wandering around. They won't arrest or attack your people, and they won't invite you to attack by breaking down doors. We'll be peaceful, if you'll be peaceful."

In exchange, what the insurgents had to do was: first, make sure their communities weren't headquarters for jihadist attacks on Shia; and second, not carry out offensives against U.S. military bases, which are usually located on the outskirts of these cities.

The insurgents had been shelling the bases with rocket-propelled grenades and ambushing American convoys on the highways with improvised explosive devices. If they would stop all this and get control of their communities, the U.S. would pay them $300 a month to be the local cops, which they were anyway.

So from the Awakening's point of view, this was a great victory. Now, the biggest problem they had in their lives, which was the U.S. coming in and blowing up their homes and arresting everyone, was going to end. They took the deal.

It started with a few American generals cutting deals in a few areas. Then it became U.S. policy and was exported to the Baghdad area. The Awakening groups never stopped saying that they absolutely hate and detest the Iraqi government, but they stopped saying that the number-one priority was to get the U.S. out of Iraq. They continued to say that the U.S. is our enemy, but they backed off their campaign to expel the U.S. as soon as possible.

The question is whether the Sahwas are ready to make an alliance with the Sadrists, who have as their primary goal to expel the U.S. I don't know the answer to that, and I haven't seen any informed reporting on it.

I do know that the Awakening Groups have repeatedly had major complaints with the way the Americans treat them and even bigger complaints about the Iraqi government. There's no sense that there's some kind of peaceful situation developing. It's incredibly tense.

But whether they're willing to form an official alliance with the Sadrists who are clearly fighting the U.S. on a daily basis is a real question.

IN RECENT weeks, the Bush administration has again stepped up its rhetoric against Iran, claiming that it is a sponsor of the fighting in Iraq and Lebanon. Do you think that we're on the threshold of an even more dangerous phase of the U.S.-driven conflict in the Middle East?

I THINK we might be at a very dangerous moment precisely because Iran hasn't gotten strong enough to really deter the U.S., but they will be soon. The Bush administration, especially certain leaders in it, will argue that if the U.S. doesn't do it now, it can never be done.

I think that may be an explanation for why there is so much saber-rattling going on and over the last few months. But that said, it does seem that the people who think that an attack on Iran would be counterproductive are in the ascendancy at the moment, according to most reporters from inside the Beltway who have a clear lens.

We know some of the personalities here. Clearly, Dick Cheney is the highest-ranking leader of the "attack Iran" faction. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is probably the most important character in the "don't attack Iran" fraction, though sometimes, he seems to waver.

As recently as mid-May, Gates made a statement that "We think we can negotiate with Iran about many issues." At the same time, Bush implied the opposite two days later, and they fired the head of Centcom because he made the statement that the United States wouldn't attack, and it would be a military mistake to do so.

We can tell from the fact that they're going back and forth in this way that there are very powerful people in the administration on both sides.

My best understanding is that they all would love to attack Iran, but many think it's a bad strategic idea at this time. They basically want regime change in Iran, along with a whole set of changed policies on Iran's side with regard to oil, economics in general and Middle Eastern politics. They want a dramatic transformation of Iran's behavior that a mere change in the leadership wouldn't accomplish.

They want to do something dramatic. They feel Iran is gaining in strength and developing more deterrence against a U.S. attack, so they feel an urgency to act soon. But it looks like such an attack would only result in a further weakening of the American position in the Middle East as a whole, and in Iraq specifically. There would be a tremendous Shia uprising in Iraq, among other things, in response to a U.S. attack on Iran.

So they're in a terrible bind here. They seem to have accomplished what Juan Cole several years ago said: By attacking Iraq, they created in Iran a regional powerhouse that they thought the invasion of Iraq would prevent.

This is one of those fabulous contradictions that sometimes occurs in international affairs. Whatever the Bush administration does in an attempt to weaken Iran actually strengthens Iran instead. This is another round--the attack on Basra, which ends up bringing Iran into the picture as a mediating force between their client government and the rebels.

And just think of how this plays with the rest of the countries in the Middle East. It looks like Iran is rescuing the U.S.

It's an amazing situation, and they still haven't come up with any formulation that allows them to develop any real leverage over Iran.