x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Iraqis wary of the calm before a storm

The last big set piece battles fought between government forces and militias were finished by the summer.

US and Iraqi  soldiers search an apartment block in Mahmoudiya, hunting for members of so-called "special groups".
US and Iraqi soldiers search an apartment block in Mahmoudiya, hunting for members of so-called "special groups".

For some time now, most of southern Iraq has been relatively peaceful; the last big set piece battles fought between government forces and militias were finished by the summer. Confidence began to grow that this new stability might actually be here to stay. But under the apparently tranquil surface, local officials in two key cities are concerned that Iranian-backed militants are preparing a campaign of violence to upset the calm. "We have put out a warning to the people of Maysan that groups planning to assassinate police and army commanders are once again active in the province," Adel Rady Muhodir, the governor of Maysan, said in an interview. "We are expecting retaliation against our security forces, which were involved in a crackdown on some of the Mahdi Army militia." In March the Iraqi government launched a campaign to forcibly disarm Shiite militias, Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, declaring that any political party with an armed wing would be barred from taking part in elections. In effect these measures targeted the Mahdi Army, the armed faction of the nationalist Sadr movement and the largest Shiite force, which remained hostile to the authorities and the US military. Although its leader, the cleric Muqtada al Sadr, had officially declared a ceasefire and joined in the political process, the Sadrists were divided. Many Sadrists refused to stop armed resistance and some breakaway elements - branded "special groups" by US intelligence - continued to attack US troops. Fighting broke out in Basra as government forces moved in to seize neighbourhoods under militia control, sparking uprisings by Sadrist militants in other parts of the country. Most were quickly suppressed and, despite a few significant setbacks, government troops gained the upper hand. The Mahdi Army's power was dramatically reduced and soon after the campaign, Mr al Sadr announced it was to be dissolved. But while there were fierce battles in which the Iraqi army claimed to have killed or arrested scores of gunmen, many militants from the special groups are believed to have escaped by leaving major cities or by crossing the border into Iran. These are the men that Mr Muhodir said were planning a comeback. "We have been given intelligence information that a dozen groups have re-entered Maysan from Iran and that they want to destabilise the security situation," he said. "Some elements of the Mahdi Army were arrested or killed, but significant people did flee to Iran and they have since been trained in assassination tactics and bomb making. "They are now back and we understand they are going to try to kill or kidnap government officials and their family members." The security services in Maysan, which borders Iran and is renowned as a centre for cross-border smuggling, were taking additional precautions and searching for the militants, the governor said, although none had yet been found. Special groups are considered by the US military leaders to be a greater threat to their troops than al Qa'eda. The United States has accused Iran of providing them with the material and know-how to make bombs powerful enough to penetrate the strongest armour. Hundreds of US soldiers are believed to have been killed by the bombs, known as explosively formed penetrators or EFPs. In Kut, the administrative capital of Wasit province, a security official said in an interview he believed special groups were working inside Iraq's security forces. "This is very serious and we are certain that the interior ministry has been infiltrated by members of special groups," he said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media. "We have had a number of high-level detainees who have been released on orders from the interior ministry in Baghdad, but we know they carried out assassinations." The official said he believed the special groups were under Iranian control and were working to upset provincial elections, scheduled to take place nationwide on Jan 31. Most of the claims about Iranian influence and the special groups are made by various intelligence agencies and are impossible to verify. Intelligence in Iraq is commonly used for political leverage as various factions struggle for power. The Sadr movement is highly nationalistic and, at a grassroots level, accuses its key Shiite rivals, the Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), of being Iranian stooges. Sunni blocs frequently make similar allegations. In turn, Dawa and ISCI, both members of the governing coalition, together with the United States, have at various times portrayed the Sadrists as beholden to Iran. A former militia fighter who was expelled from the Mahdi Army and who is now part of a small, private armed group in Wasit province, said Iran was assisting them but not controlling their actions. "We have not surrendered to Iran or the Iranians," the 27-year-old said. He asked to be named only as Abu Hassan. "But we needed some support from Iran because the Americans have better weapons than we do. "We still manage ourselves and we are still Iraqis against the occupation." He insisted Mr al Sadr had been tricked into declaring a ceasefire by treacherous advisers who had discarded the Sadrists' nationalist and religious principles. "We were surprised when some of the leaders in the Mahdi Army started to betray us in April," Abu Hassan said. "They were giving our names over to the government and the Americans, they were helping to have us killed." The Mahdi Army leaders "said it was because we were associating with terrorists, but that's not true. They just did a deal - they handed us over to protect themselves. We are sure Muqtada is still against the occupation and that he did not abandon us, he has just been deceived", Abu Hassan said. In north-east Baghdad a Mahdi Army commander from the Husseiniya district, who asked to be named only as Abu Zahra, said breakaway special groups remained a problem. "We had elements in the Mahdi Army working in our name for Iran and also as spies for the Americans," he said. "It was a big problem in our area. They wanted to insult us and destroy our reputation. In fact we captured some of these and handed them over to the Iraqi government. "There are still some gangs and terrorists working for money but they are not part of the Mahdi Army." nlatif@thenational.ae