The progress in the past three short months in Iraq is unmistakable. Since General Petraeus has taken command of MNF-I forces in mid February, the convergence of developments has fundamentally changed the outlook in Iraq. While “The Surge” has dominated discussion – be it on operational tempo within Baghdad or withdrawal timetables within the DC Beltway – progress on several vital fronts is beginning to reshape realities on the ground.
As the contentious internal American political debate continues, our leaders and the American public would do well to acknowledge the significantly changing situation.
In Baghdad, for example, the over-hyped Muqtada al-Sadr has long made tracks for the more hospitable climes of Iran. The Baker Commission’s Iraq Study Group Report estimated the Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi or JAM) to consist of 40-60 thousand armed fighters. In the absence of its leadership, Sadr’s ‘army’ has splintered into the various bands of Shia street thugs they always were. Sure, there are exceptions, such as the particular hard core ‘extremist’ extra-judicial killing (EJK) cells hunting Sunnis to stoke Iran’s much-desired Iraqi civil war. But an estimated 3,000 Iranian-backed extremists in EJK cells still roaming the streets must be seen as an undeniable improvement over the tens of thousands recently under the Mahdi Army banner.
Iraqi Shi’a Party Rebuffs Iranian Direction
Additional bad news for Iran is the seismic shift of Iraq’s largest political party away from Iran. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) began to fundamentally distance itself from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, taking on a more nationalistic stance. It has removed ‘Revolution’ from its name – as well as historical deference to Qom - and is now looking to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for religious guidance.
This announcement came just ten days after Iran’s Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, visited Sistani in Najaf, Iraq. After the meeting, Larijani said to Iranian media, according to Asia Times, that “Sistani informed him that the US government has been holding meetings with Iraqi terrorist groups.” The Asia Times went on to say that the meeting between the two was of great significance, “reminding the world of Iran's close ties to the Shi'ite power hierarchy in Iraq.”
In fact, what exists is a deep rivalry between the revolutionary Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and the traditionalist Grand Ayatollah Sistani, both claiming authority over the Shi’a faith. While the Khomeinist revolutionary Khameini clearly believes in Shi’a theocracy, the Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani believes that the faith can exist within a democracy without theological conflict. And while the Iranians work to spin the growing Sunni tribal rejection of al-Qaeda as Americans “negotiating with terrorists,” Sistani himself has always had open channels of communication with American forces and the Iraqi government.
Iran Evidence Turned SCIRI, Sistani Popular In Iran
It was through those open channels that the United States clearly shared evidence of Iranian material support for specific Sunni groups engaged in targeting Shi’a Iraqis in attacks. And it was clearly compelling enough to cause Iraq’ largest Shi’a political party to seek guidance from the traditionalist (and pro-democracy) al-Sistani instead of the revolutionary Iranian leaders.
While it is not known publicly what specific Iran intelligence was shared with the SCIRI leadership, the compelling details surely included such things as the information gained through December and January Baghdad and Irbil raids on Iranain Quds Force operatives. One official confirmed, “We found plans for attacks, phone numbers affiliated with Sunni bad guys, a lot of things that filled in the blanks on what these guys are up to.” Such detailed information proving Iranian cooperation with Sunni groups killing Iraqi Shi’a civilians likely proved compelling enough to the SCIRI leadership that Iran’s support is far less than advertised.
Indicative that what was announced is the tip of an iceberg of change, the announcement of the change in the new Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly SCIRI) came with a claim that more profound changes are yet to come.
Sistani’s appeal does not end at the Iraqi border, as Iranians increasingly observe his leadership with interest and fondness. Some are “intrigued by the more freewheeling experiment in Shi'ite empowerment taking place across the border in Iraq,” which is fundamentally different in approach than the Iranian theocratic brand of dictated observance and obedience. The Boston Globe’s Anne Barnard reports that within Tehran’s own central bazaar, “an increasing number of merchants are sending their religious donations, a 20 percent tithe expected from all who can spare it, to Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric.”
While it is difficult to understate the significance of the monumental shift within Iraq, it should also be recognized that the decision to transform the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq into simply the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council was not arrived at with unanimity. Nor was it arrived at without heated debate. As well, many of the SCIRI party’s elected government officials have ties and allegiances to Iran that are unlikely to simply evaporate overnight. But a profoundly significant Shi’a nationalist transformation process has begun, and this is a very positive development – one good for Iraq and beneficial to American interests in the region.
Al Qaeda’s Forced Migration From Anbar to Diyala
On the Sunni front, the steadily increasing membership and activities of the Anbar Salvation Council under Sheikh Abdul Sattar has given rise to a new and formidable enemy for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sattar’s Anbar Salvation Council movement, which was joined by many Anbar tribal sheikhs in rejection of al-Qaeda’s murderous ways and oppression and intimidation of local populations, served as the catalyst that drove al-Qaeda terrorists from their relatively comfortable perches in Anbar province. The sheer will and exponentially increased intelligence capabilities that the local tribal leaders bring to their partnership with US and Iraqi government forces against the terrorists in their midst has caused al-Qaeda to lose the initiative in Anbar, most notably in their former Ramadi stronghold southwest of Baghdad.
As the situation in Anbar began to turn increasingly sour for al-Qaeda, their defacto base of terrorist operations migrated to Diyala province on the opposite side of Baghdad. As was the case in Anbar province, al-Qaeda terrorists, led by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, used brutal intimidation and violence to entrench themselves within the new province’s Sunni population, targeting reluctant or resistant tribal leaders there and terrorizing the population into submission.
But the Sunni nationalist movement is growing, most recently challenging al-Qaeda in their new stronghold in Diyala province, which stretches from northeast Baghdad to the Iranian border. As in Anbar, Diyala tribal sheikhs opposed to al-Qaeda’s murderous means and theological ends have openly announced the formation of the Diyala Salvation Council, reportedly consisting of over 280 local tribal leaders. This opposition has existed well before the announcement, but fear of al-Qaeda retribution kept its participants underground. The threat of retribution is still a clear and present danger of those publicly taking the stand. But the Coalition presence in Diyala is growing ahead of predictably imminent major US and Iraqi military operations that will sweep through the province once ample cordoning forces can be put into place, expected by the end of June.
The public formation of the Diyala Salvation Council comes after the operation against al-Qaeda in which it was initially believerd that al-Qaeda In Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri had been killed by tribal forces loyal to Shiekh Abdul Sattar’s movement. While a man named al-Masri (“the Egyptian”) had indeed been killed, it was not the terrorist leader who also hails from Egyptian origin. But the confrontation sought out by the tribal forces should be seen in retrospect as a sign of growing confidence and operational capability in Diyala province. The open announcement of the official public formation of the Diyala Salvation Council is a natural progression of that confidence and a clear indicator of the will to eradicate al-Qaeda terrorists from Iraqi soil.
To be sure, its creation is no coincidence, nor is its similar name, and is evidence of the growth and popularity of Sheikh Adul Sattar’s Iraq Awakening (Sahwat Al Anbar) nationalist movement that itself emerged from the Anbar Salvation Front (later renamed Anbar Salvation Council). The Diyala organization comes under the Iraq Awakening umbrella as the national appeal of both the Iraq Awakening movement and Sheikh Sattar begins to take concrete form.
Turning The Corner In Iraq
At the end of the day, it must be acknowledged – particularly by American political leaders – that the situation is improving going forward, particularly because Iraqis themselves are taking ownership of the survival and security of their own country, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city and troubled province by troubled province. While the Sunni tribal leaders increasingly reject al-Qaeda and transform into the terrorists’ newest and most damaging new enemy, the Shi’a leadership also has begun to internally acknowledge the shallowness and duplicity of Iran’s stated support for them.
There is much work to be done, both by Iraqis and by Coalition forces, and much fighting lay ahead, particularly in the coming bloody house-to-house street fighting against increasingly desperate al-Qaeda terrorists who have lost Anbar and see the cordon beginning to encircle their new Diyala powerbase. Americans should be prepared for the necessary fight ahead.
But there is a corner being turned in Iraq by Sunni and Shi’a alike, and Americans currently engaged in the incessant debate on the Iraq War would do well to look up long enough to notice. To fail to do so would be to once again trade military victory for political defeat. We’ve been down this road before. When discussing withdrawal at this stage – just as the corner is being turned – would leave yet another population to the un-tender mercies of unabated terror and tyranny.
This is the generational test of our nation’s character. What we do or do not do will define us in the eyes of enemy and ally alike. Most importantly, our actions will lie at the feet of our own collective conscience.
We stand as a nation at the bank teller window, accessing our National Character account. The question remains: Will our balance reflect a deposit or a withdrawal?