Shia Militias Making a Comeback in Iraq

April has been the deadliest month for American forces since November 2009 but it’s unclear why sectarian violence flared up.

An Iraqi platoon leader looks down the line of his fellow soldiers as they prepare to fire at paper targets at an M16 zero range at Al Asad, January 5
An Iraqi platoon leader looks down the line of his fellow soldiers as they prepare to fire at paper targets at an M16 zero range at Al Asad, January 5 (US Army/Staff Sergeant Christopher Jelle)

The United States may be preparing to withdraw all of their forces from Iraq by the end of the year; this doesn’t mean that American soldiers are safe from hostile fire or that Iraq as a country is any more secure than at the height of the surge.

According to an independent body count from icasualties.org, last April was the deadliest for American soldiers since November 2009. The month of April also registered the highest number of political assassinations this year, part of an insurgent campaign that deliberately targets Iraqi officials in order to sow discord among the Iraqi population and their government. On April 30, the twelfth American in a month was killed in southern Iraq by mortar fire — a frightening reminder that while coalition personnel are largely in an advise and assist function, they are still fighting and dying for Iraq’s fragile security.

Compared to the years when the United States and Great Britain were sustaining double digit casualty rates a month, the low death toll would appear to be a relatively minor phenomenon. In December 2006 for instance, when Iraqi Shiitess and Sunnis were killing one another at a brazen pace, more than one hundred American soldiers lost their lives across the country. The majority of the American electorate at that time was firmly against the Bush Administration’s handling of the war. Congress was holding public hearings in full television view with Middle East experts, examining the seriousness of the Iraqi security situation and how the strategy was failing to make headway.

In 2011, Iraq is much safer and sectarian violence is at its lowest since the war began. Americans are largely apathetic about Iraq and President Barack Obama’s Iraq policy now is concentrated firmly on getting all forces out of the country in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement. But while Iraq may no longer be a heavyweight political issue, it doesn’t change the fact that total security in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk is hardly achieved.

Actually achieving total security is, of course, an impossible task in a country divided along tribal and sectarian fault lines. Yet the possibility of achieving semi-security or security that allows daily society to function properly is still far from a reality.

Part of this is unfortunately a product of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s overall strategy of instilling fear and driving a wedge between the people and their government. Assassinations of public officials, including judges, parliamentary leaders, police officers or anyone associated with the Iraqi government is ongoing and has been ongoing despite the lull in communal violence. Al Qaeda may be battered but it is not defeated, evident in coordinated mass attacks executed by the organization every so often. The Al Qaeda siege of a parliament building and the cold blooded murder of over fifty hostages last March was their latest act of brutality.

Shia militias, which have been quiet since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in 2008, may be coming back to life as well. Most of the recent American troop fatalities occurred in southern Iraq, the Shia heartland of the country and the area where Ṣadr traditionally enjoys support. American troops tell stories of mortar fire against their bases and air fields. If Iraq is secure, then why are missiles still flying through the sky?

There has yet to be a definitive rationale for explaining the rise in violence, especially in southern Iraq. Some speculate that Muqtada al-Sadr’s group is trying to convince Iraqis that they are the ones responsible for driving American troops out. The Ṣadrist bloc has long played upon the anti-occupation sentiments of the Iraqi electorate, so engaging American personnel is not a stretch.

Iranian special groups in Iraq may also have a role in the violence. With American troops drawing down and the American military command now under strict rules of engagement, Tehran could see this period as an ample time to take potshots at the “Great Satan.” Iran’s special groups also serve a political purpose by reminding Prime Minister Maliki that Tehran is a major player in the country, whether he likes it or not.

Shia militias may also be sending a message to Nouri al-Maliki of what the future could look like should be decide to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement and allow a small force of American soldiers to stay beyond the 2011 deadline.

No one said that politics is peaceful.