Iraq's Shiite-dominated government issued a public criticism Oct. 4 condemning the United States for creating Sunni militias that operate outside the law. The formation of U.S.-backed Sunni militias to counter Iranian-backed Shiite militias fits into a larger U.S. strategy to pressure the Iranians into serious negotiations over Iraq. Iran, however, still appears to be undecided on how to progress in its own Iraq strategy.
The Shiite-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sharply criticized what it called a U.S. policy to create Sunni militias that are operating outside the control of the central government. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) — Iraq's largest Shiite bloc, which has close ties to Iran — issued a statement Oct. 4 accusing these Sunni militias of kidnapping, killing and blackmailing Shiite militiamen belonging to Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army in Baghdad's western Saydiya neighborhood. These U.S.-backed groups, the UIA says, are setting up checkpoints without coordinating with the government. The tables appear to be turning in Iraq. The complaints that the Shiite bloc is now issuing are exactly the same complaints that Iraq's Sunni bloc has voiced over Iranian-backed Shiite death squads. And this is precisely the dynamic that the United States is aiming to create in order to push the Iranians into serious negotiations. Iran's biggest advantage in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq was that it had strong and disciplined Shiite militias lying in wait for the very moment that Hussein fell. These militias gave Iran a cohesive and well-trained militant proxy to carry out its objectives in Iraq. In addition, Iran's principal allies in Iraq's Shiite bloc, namely Abdel Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council party, were unified enough to guarantee a Shiite majority in the Iraqi government. The Sunnis, on the other hand, were in disarray. They lacked a unified political voice and insurgent leader to effectively counter the Shia on both the political and militant fronts. The Sunnis themselves were deeply divided among the jihadist factions, the Islamist-leaning Sunni nationalist factions and the secular former Baathists. However, lately the United States has focused its efforts on re-creating Iran's worst nightmare: the rise of another hostile Sunni Baathist regime. By striking deals with key Sunni tribal leaders, the United States has lessened its own workload by getting Iraqi Sunni nationalists to turn on the jihadists, but this tactical strategy also fits into the broader U.S. strategy against Iran. Fashioning a potentially potent Sunni front made up of former Baathists to counter the Shia could ultimately force the Iranians into cutting a deal, or so Washington hopes. Factional differences still exist within the Sunni militant community, and uniting the bulk of Iraq's Sunni community into a single force against the Iranians will be no easy task. But most of Iraq's Sunni nationalist and Islamist insurgent groups have formed alliances in recent months that will allow them to pool their resources and build up a more formidable militant front in anticipation of a post-U.S. withdrawal bloodbath with the Shia. Many of Iran's key Shiite allies in the government also have been taken out in insurgent attacks that have exacerbated intra-Shiite tensions and complicated Iran's position in Iraq. Now that these newly-fashioned, U.S.-backed Sunni militias are deliberately working outside the control of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, a crisis of confidence is brewing in Iraq's already fractured Shiite bloc. Iran and Iraq's Shia have a choice to make. They can dig their heels in, raise the stakes for U.S. forces in Iraq, push for a U.S. withdrawal and prepare for the coming bloodbath with the Sunnis. Or, they can decide that it is not worth the risk of losing what they have gained thus far to a Sunni force receiving strong backing from Washington and Riyadh. Iran also might be unwilling to risk dealing with any surprises from the next U.S. president. This calculus is what would push the Iranians closer to talks and Iraq's Shia into working out a viable power-sharing arrangement with the Sunnis. At this point the Iranians appear to be undecided. On one hand, there are strong forces within Iran advocating talks with the United States. On the other hand, Iran is signaling that it is willing to up the stakes by shipping surface-to-air missiles into Iraq. There are also rumors going around Baghdad that new Shiite mercenaries have shown up on the streets who are getting paid $5,000 for every U.S. soldier they kill. The Iranians could very well risk a military confrontation with the United States should they decide to bleed U.S. forces and take on the newly-formed Sunni militias directly. Without any guarantee that the United States would withdraw from Iraq to allow the Iranians to reap their gains, this is a risky move. We expect the Iranians to err on the side of caution, but the coming months will reveal whether they are prepared to move toward an understanding with the United States over Iraq.