Thursday, August 16, 2007

Resistance to "the Surge"

US 'surges', soldiers die. Blame Iran

By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - When a top US commander in Iraq reported last week that attacks by Shi'ite militias with links to Iran had risen to 73% of all July attacks that had killed or wounded US forces in Baghdad, he claimed it was because of an effort by Iran to oust the United States from Iraq, referring to "intelligence reports" of a "surge" in Iranian assistance.

But the obvious reason for the rise in Shi'ite-related US casualties - ignored in US media coverage of Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno's charge - is that the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr was defending itself against a rising tempo of attacks by US forces at the same time attacks by al-Qaeda forces had fallen.

In his press briefing on August 5, Odierno, the second-ranking US commander in Iraq, blamed the rise in the proportion of US casualties attributable to Shi'ite militias to Iran "surging their support to these groups based on the September report" - a reference to the much-anticipated report by General David Petraeus on the United States' own "surge" strategy.

Odierno claimed intelligence reports supported his contention of an Iranian effort to influence public perceptions of the "surge" strategy. "They're sending more money in, they're training more individuals and they're sending more weapons in."

He repeated the charge in an interview with Michael R Gordon of the New York Times published on its front page on August 8 under the headline "US says Iran-supplied bomb is killing more troops in Iraq". In that interview, he declared of Iran, "I think they want to influence the decision potentially coming up in September."

What Odierno framed in terms of an Iranian policy, however, can be explained much more simply by the fact that the US military mounted more operations on Muqtada's Mahdi Army during the spring and summer.

The US command has not provided any statistics on the targets of its operations in recent months, but news reports on those operations reveal a pattern of rising US attacks on Mahdi Army personnel since March.

Between April 26 and June 30, the US command in Baghdad announced dozens of military operations in Baghdad - the vast majority in Sadr City - solely for the purpose of capturing or killing Shi'ites belonging to what were called "secret cells", a term used to describe Mahdi Army units alleged to be supported by Iran.

In July, the Mahdi Army resisted these raids in many cases. On July 9, for example, US troops cordoned off an area in Sadr City and began searching for members of what the US command called a "criminal militia" accused of planting roadside bombs. According to the official military press release, the US troops were "engaged by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire from numerous locations".

In short, the rise in deaths of US troops in Baghdad last month reflected the increased pace of US operations against the Mahdi Army and the Mahdi Army's military response.

Odierno conceded as much in the same press conference: "Because of the effect we've had on al-Qaeda in Iraq and the success against them and the Sunni insurgency," he said, "we are focusing very much more on the special groups of the Jaish al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army] here in Baghdad."

The major briefing by the US command on alleged Iranian support for Iraqi Shi'ite militias in recent weeks appears to contradict Odierno's claim that intelligence showed increased Iranian assistance to those militias. Brigadier-General Kevin Bergner told reporters on August 2 - after a "surge" in Iranian assistance had allegedly taken place - that the rate of training of militia groups in Iran had remained stable for a long time.

The transcript of the briefing also shows that Bergner did not claim any recent increase in financial assistance to the Mahdi Army.

Odierno's reference to "sending more weapons in" continued the practice of the US administration to claim that Iranian officials actually ship weapons to Shi'ite militias in Iraq, despite the fact that no evidence of such a role has been found after four years of trying.

Odierno told the New York Times that explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) accounted for one-third of combat deaths suffered by "US-led forces" - including Iraqi and British forces - last month. But he said nothing about the proportion of total US troops killed or wounded by them.

The administration of US President George W Bush continues to assert that EFPs are provided by the Iranian government, despite numerous discoveries by US forces of workshops manufacturing such devices in Iraq.

Odierno's charges are the latest addition to an ongoing Bush administration narrative about developments in Iraq that treats all Shi'ite activity outside the Iraqi government as reflecting Iranian policy.

Its central theme of an Iranian policy to drive the US out of Iraq by killing US troops, introduced in January, has branched out into several sub-themes, one of which is that Muqtada has lost control over the Mahdi Army. The US command has been claiming it has broken up into "rogue units" - also called "special groups". Those "rogue units" in turn are said to have become instruments of Iranian policy.

Although the Mahdi Army operates on a highly decentralized basis, and some units have been involved in sectarian activities that Muqtada did not approve, the US military has never produced evidence that a significant number of units are no longer loyal to Muqtada.

The "rogue units" line has been used to suggest that those units that were loyal to Muqtada were cooperating with the United States and to justify US attacks on the Mahdi Army both in Baghdad and in southern Iraq.

Petraeus claimed publicly that Muqtada had agreed in talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to the deployment of US troops to Baghdad's Sadr City district in return for assurances that searches and raids would be conducted in a "respectable manner".

Muqtada's spokesman in Parliament said, however, that the understanding had been that Iraqi forces would conduct searches and that US troops would intervene only if they faced resistance and that US troops had violated the understanding.

At first, Muqtada's troops stayed off the streets and did not resist US troops. But in March, Muqtada's office denounced the US troop deployment in Sadr City and called on people to take to the streets in protest. And a Shi'ite cleric loyal to Muqtada exhorted followers at Friday prayers not to cooperate with the US occupation of Sadr City.

On April 8, Muqtada issued a statement urged the Iraqi Army and police to stop cooperating with the United States and told his guerrilla fighters to concentrate on pushing US forces out of the country.

Thus it requires no Iranian hand to explain the escalation of the conflict between the Mahdi Army and the US military that accounts for the changing pattern of US casualties in Baghdad.

Gareth Porter is a historian and national-security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.

Original article posted here.

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