What a Political Alliance Between Two Iraq War-Era Militia Leaders Means For the U.S.
The stakes were high in May, when Iraq held its first election after declaring victory over ISIS. The country is still recovering from the devastating fight to retake territory the terrorist group seized in 2014, while Iraqis have protested corruption, incompetence and the lack of basic services in recent years.
The election results defied expectations, with blocs led by two controversial Iraq War-era figures — Muqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist cleric, and Hadi al-Amiri, the head of a powerful Iran-backed militia — winning the highest number of seats, while current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s bloc came in third.
In the push to form a government, on June 12 Sadr and Amiri announced a political alliance between their blocs, raising questions about the future of American involvement in Iraq, a key U.S. ally. Both men have been ambivalent about the presence of U.S. troops in the country. The alliance means that both will be influential in forming the next Iraqi government — one that some Iraq observers say could diminish the U.S.’s role.
“It obviously means that there’s going to be a strong anti-U.S. position in the government in Iraq if Sadr and Amiri are the core of the government being formed, regardless of who the actual prime minister is,” Vali Nasr, dean at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Shia Revival, told FRONTLINE.
Amiri, who heads the Badr Organization, one of Iraq’s oldest and most powerful Shia militias, was alleged to have ordered attacks against Sunnis, a minority in Iraq, during the years of brutal sectarian violence that followed the U.S. invasion. He took on a leading role in Iraq’s fight against ISIS, which put Shia militias and the U.S. military on the same side, but he told Iranian TV in November that the militias would not allow a single U.S. soldier to remain in Iraq.
Sadr, a cleric with popular support among Iraq’s working-class Shia, was once a sworn enemy of the United States. In the aftermath of the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, Sadr called the U.S. “the great serpent,” and led a militia known as the Mahdi Army in attacks against U.S. troops.
In recent years, he has reinvented himself as an Iraqi nationalist opposed to the outside influence of both the U.S. and Iran. In this election, he campaigned on a populist, anti-corruption platform, formed a cross-sectarian bloc that included communists, and called for Shia militias to disarm (including his own Saraya al-Salam, which was formed to battle ISIS in 2014).
Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, noted that Sadr campaigned on some of the issues that are most pressing to Iraqi voters. If Sadr’s alliance is the one to deliver on those issues, Crocker said, “We can certainly put up with a little anti-U.S. rhetoric if it brings the country generally to a much better place in terms of long-term stability.”
Some experts, however, say pragmatism may win over posturing when it comes to Iraq’s future relationship with the U.S.
Emma Sky, who served as a governorate coordinator in the transitional government of Iraq set up by the coalition in 2003-2004, and as a U.S. military adviser in Iraq in 2007-2010, said she expected there would be more calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq as the country formed a new government. “But given what happened after all U.S. troops pulled out at the end of 2011,” she said, referring to the swift rise of ISIS, “there may be some pragmatic Iraqi voices that propose a contingent remain to advise and assist.”
Sadr and Amiri “both view the U.S. as a negative actor in Iraq, in so far as the U.S. is looking to pursue its interests at the expense of what they would see as Iraq’s interests,” Renad Mansour, a fellow at Chatham House, an independent policy institute in London, told FRONTLINE. “But nonetheless, they both also realize that to become statesmen, and to play politics, you can’t have an explicitly inflammatory or antagonistic policy against the U.S.”
On June 23, in another unexpected move, Abadi — Iraq’s current leader — announced that he had also become Sadr’s political ally, despite their past rivalry. After an election marred by low turnout and allegations of fraud, Abadi said at a news conference, “We want to speed up the process of coming to a political agreement to send a positive message to the citizens that we are serious about moving forward.”
The United States once viewed Sadr as Enemy No. 1. The 2008 FRONTLINE documentary Bush’s War examined how leaders of the U.S. occupation viewed Sadr as a threat in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, with L. Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority from May 2003 to June 2004, advocating the U.S. “move against him before he got stronger.”
Sadr’s Mahdi Army challenged the “light footprint” strategy that the United States tried to implement to extricate itself from Iraq. After launching an uprising against the U.S. occupation, he holed up with his supporters in the Imam Ali Shrine, a Shia holy site in the city of Najaf. The White House, not wanting to risk destroying the mosque, ordered the general leading the offensive to cut a deal.
“I don’t think it was ever called a ceasefire or a peace agreement, but essentially, it was,” then-Maj. Thomas Mowle, an adviser to the coalition commander in Iraq, told FRONTLINE in Bush’s War. “Sadr agreed to have his militia not oppose the Americans. We bought back a lot of weapons from his militia.” The U.S. spent $1.2 million buying back weapons, and another $330 million in “reconstruction funds.”
However, a Sunni insurgency was soon underway in the country. When Al Qaeda, which gained a foothold in the country after the U.S. invasion, bombed a mosque in Samarra, it prompted a vicious retaliation from Shia militias, including Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
“When the state failed to protect Shia neighborhoods from the growing attacks, a lot of Shia started to argue that, ‘Look, you’re not protecting us. You’re not even protecting the holy shrines. We cannot rely on you,’” Laith Kubba, the Iraq government’s spokesman from 2005 to 2006, told FRONTLINE. “And I think that was the turning point when violence increased and the militias amongst the Shias became unruly.”
The violence and reprisals would soon ignite a full-blown sectarian war. Amiri’s Badr Organization was implicated in the violence. A leaked 2009 State Department cable alleged that “one of [Amiri’s] preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries.”
In 2016, while reporting on Confronting ISIS, Martin Smith asked Amiri about allegations that Badr militia members abused Sunni residents in the fight against ISIS. “I don’t claim that there are never violations that occur during war,” Amiri responded.
“And I would say to you, as [an] American journalist, examine the violations committed by the American army during the occupation of Iraq,” Amiri told Smith. “This is a war, and in a war, there are violations. Let us have a neutral committee to investigate, and I’m certain they’ll find the [militia] more disciplined than American troops.”
Recently, Amiri has also tried to shed his sectarian image. In Confronting ISIS, he was filmed encouraging a predominantly Shia tribe to allow their Sunni neighbors to return to the area after ISIS had been driven out. ISIS had killed 3,000 of the tribe’s members, and tribal leaders insisted that Sunni neighbors were either ISIS supporters or collaborators.
“We should return to living alongside each other,” Amiri said. “The victory [over ISIS] will be incomplete unless the displaced people return to their homes.”