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Sectarian Clash Leaves at Least 60 Dead in Southern Iraqi City

August 29, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Coalition forces and Iraqi troops patrolled the perimeter of Diwaniya today, one day after the most violent clashes yet between the Iraqi army and gunmen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The 12-hour gun battle, about 80 miles south of Baghdad, left dozens dead, including soldiers allegedly executed by militiamen.

Sadr’s army, known as the Mahdi Army, staged the first major Shiite resistance against American troops in April 2004. In recent months, the fighters are now targeting a new enemy: Iraqi security forces.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has said militias are the single greatest threat to the country’s stability. He appeared on the NewsHour earlier this month.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: Militias have that potential to become a state within a state. For Iraq to succeed to become a successful country, militias have to be brought under control.

JEFFREY BROWN: But bringing al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia under control is proving difficult. Sadr remains popular among Iraq’s majority Shiite community, especially the poor. His party controls 30 of the 275 seats in parliament and has five seats in the cabinet of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki, also a Shiite, so far has not publicly called for the disbanding of Sadr’s militia.

A sign of things to come

Laith Kubba
Former Iraqi Government Spokesman
[I]t's important because the state of Iraq is reasserting itself. The army, and police units, and the coalition forces moved against criminal elements, networks, and they had to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on all of this, we get three views. Laith Kubba was spokesman for Iraq's previous government from April 2005 until January of this year. He's now director for Middle East programs at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan.

Bing West was an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. He's made frequent trips to Iraq since the U.S. invasion and has written two books about the Marine Corps' experience there.

Welcome to you all.

Starting with you, Laith Kubba, how significant was that battle yesterday?

LAITH KUBBA, Former Iraqi Government Spokesman: Well, it is significant in two or three perspectives. One, it's important because the state of Iraq is reasserting itself. The army, and police units, and the coalition forces moved against criminal elements, networks, and they had to do that. That is necessary to assure citizens that this state is back in business.

But it's also significant because this is the first time the state is moving on the issue of militias, irrespective of the criminal dimension. The Sadr militiamen is one of many, two or three other militias in the country. It's the least disciplined, and it's going to be a tough test case.

But the third, most important element: If that issue of al-Sadr is not handled politically, then potentially it can open a very wide front in the country. Iraq cannot afford to have an all-out war with al-Sadr at the moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Juan Cole, how do you read what happened in Diwaniya?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Well, I have a different perspective. I think this was militia-on-militia violence. The Badr Corps has infiltrated the police and security in Qadisiyah province, where the ruling party is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

In the meantime, since the last provincial elections, the Sadr movement has spread like wildfire in the south and is offering a challenge to the local political structures. So I'm afraid I think that this is a case where the Badr Corps and the Mahdi militia maybe were under various guises basically fighting one another. The Iraqi military ultimately came in on the side of one militia rather than another.

But what we're seeing is increasingly the Sadr movement splintering into uncontrolled local factions that are extremely violent. We saw this in Karbala with Sheik Hassani. In Basra, it has happened. Muqtada al-Sadr seems not to be in control of his own militiamen.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, Bing West, why don't you come in here? You've been watching the role of the Iraqi army. How did it do yesterday? How significant was it that it was involved?

BING WEST, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense: It was a very significant fight. Any time you have 30 to 50 people killed in a fight that goes on for 12 hours, that's a major battle.

And in this particular case, the Iraqi army went after the militia. The militia didn't expect the army to do it, and the army took the battle to them. And they fought by themselves. In 2004, this Iraqi army could not have done that. And the only help that the Americans gave in this fight was to fly in helicopters to give them re-supply.

So this shows a new kind of model. It does show an Iraqi army standing up, taking on the Shiite militia, and the army is predominantly Shiite, and not asking the Americans to do the fighting for them. So I see this as a very positive development on the battlefield.

Al-Sadr's influence in Iraq

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
We were supposed to have in Iraq by now provincial elections. My understanding is that one reason that those have not been held is that everybody knows that, were they to be held, the Sadrs might well sweep to power...

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let's go back through some of the issues you've all raised. First, Laith Kubba, Muqtada al-Sadr himself. He has battled U.S. forces. He's part of the political process. He has his own militia. How do you define his role?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, he has an appeal amongst really the poor Shias, in particular, very popular throughout the south. But what we describe as his militia, it's actually a populist armed movement. It has many, many elements, but it's not a disciplined militia with a hierarchy.

Hence, any political deal with him does not necessarily mean that there is going to be full control over all these armed men. In fact, there are many networks that are criminal operating under him.

But he cannot be dismissed currently from the political scene in Iraq. He must be contained. I think it was the right policy of the previous government to take him on board, to encourage him to participate in the elections. The fact he has members of parliaments, members in the cabinet, it's a good thing.

But more importantly, the state must be above him. The state cannot be simply under his influence or he cannot challenge the state whenever he wants to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Juan Cole, pick up on what you were saying about the spread in the south that you see happening with Sadr and his following.

JUAN COLE: Yes, in the provincial elections of January 2005, most of the nine Shiite majority provinces were carried by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which has a paramilitary called the Badr Corps.

And it really now is the establishment in those areas. It controls the government. It gives out patronage. But in the meantime, its popularity has declined. The Sadr movement's popularity has grown in most of the Shiite south, and so there's a real challenge.

And we were supposed to have in Iraq by now provincial elections. My understanding is that one reason that those have not been held is that everybody knows that, were they to be held, the Sadrs might well sweep to power in the provincial administrations of most of the southern provinces. In that case, the government would be basically allied with the Mahdi militia everywhere in the south.

Defining a dangerous force

Bing West
Former Pentagon Official
More clashes between the Iraqi army and the Sadr militia are inevitable until one side or the other establishes dominance on the battlefield. And that will be the pre-condition for serious political talks. So I see this as just the first round.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we're all using the word "militia." Let me start with you, Bing West. What do we mean when we use that word? Is it organized? Is it in factions? In this case, the important question is, how much control does Muqtada al-Sadr himself have over the militia?

BING WEST: I'll bet he has a lot of control. This militia for this particular fight in Diwaniya came from 60 miles away, so they had enough command and control all to come to that battlefield.

More clashes between the Iraqi army and the Sadr militia are inevitable until one side or the other establishes dominance on the battlefield. And that will be the pre-condition for serious political talks. So I see this as just the first round; this is going to continue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Laith Kubba, how do you define the militia here?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, the fact that they do not have a clear command structure -- yes, there is some influence, but generally speaking those people did not come from any discipline, any training.

They are people who keep Kalashnikovs and guns at their homes. They rally whenever some clergy call upon them to rally in the streets. In fact, some of them come from outside those cities, outside Diwaniya, to come and support the other local guys that are in.

In that respect, they're a little bit more dangerous because they're loose and you cannot simply control them by reaching a deal. I still believe, without containing Muqtada al-Sadr politically, this can lead to an all-out war that simply Iraq cannot afford at the moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: And politically, what does that mean?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, politically, if this happens, we already have an insurgency in the Sunni areas that are not contained at a very critical phase of trying to bring them into the negotiating table. If we have one major player like Muqtada al-Sadr out there, and his men are loose and opening fire right, left and center, then I think this will weaken the government even further. The government is fragile at the moment and cannot afford to take one more blow.

Bringing the militias under control

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Juan Cole, we heard AmbassadorKhalilzad refer to the militias as potential states within a state, they mustbe brought under control. Is there any movement within the Iraqi government todo so?

JUAN COLE: Well, expecting the Shiite religious parties todissolve militias is sort of like expecting the wine industry to go in forprohibition. All of them live by their militias; they have influence by them.

And what we are seeing in southern Iraq really isa very dangerous trend towards militia-on-militia violence. We've seen it tearapart Basra, which is Iraq's oil pipeline out to the restof the world, the source of its wealth.

We're seeing it now in places like Karbala and Diwaniya. And the Badr Corps,which is not being mentioned here, which was trained by the Iranianrevolutionary guards, not only is a force in its own right, but has beeninfiltrated into local police, into the special police commandos. And sosometimes it can act as a militia but under the guise of being the government.

And the same thing happens in some instances with the Mahdiarmy. So it's not a straightforward thing of the Iraqi army cracking down onthe militias. The militias are various, and they're closely intertwined withthe power structures.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, Professor Cole, does the Iraqi army haveto ability to step in on this militia-on militia violence that you're referringto?

JUAN COLE: Well, it does have more ability now than it used to,but I'm not impressed with its behavior in Diwaniya. It appears to be the casethat a number of soldiers were captured and were executed by the militiamen andthat the fighting subsided mainly because the mayor of Diwaniya went off toNajaf and negotiated an ending with Muqtada al-Sadr. So it wasn't a militarysolution, per se.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Bing West, respond to that. You weremore positive about the results yesterday.

BING WEST: A battle is a battle. Any time you have 50 or 60people killed, you're in a battle. The Iraqi soldiers took losses; the militiatook losses.

The Iraqis held their ground. They're still there inDiwaniya. This fight is going to continue. Sadr is a very dangerous man. He'splaying a lot of different games. He will have to be dealt with sooner orlater.

But this is a war. And in the end, any of the politicaldeals are going to be made only if the Iraqi army turns out to be tougher thanboth the Sunni insurgents and the Shia militia. So the fact that the Iraqiarmy, 80 miles from Baghdad, by itself with no Americans took on this militia-- and they took on the militia, not the other way -- I still see as a positivesign.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. West, you're saying it's going tocontinue, this is just the first step. Will there be a role for U.S. militaryforces in battling these militias?

BING WEST: Well, I liked what we saw in this case where theAmericans were not there, but they provided this fire support potential andthey provided the re-supply. So it was the Iraqis doing the fighting, theAmericans in the background. The sooner we can get that kind of model workingother places, the better off Americawill be and the better off Iraqwill be.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Bing West, Juan Cole, and LaithKubba, thank you very much.