Despite President Bush’s recent insistence that al Qaida in Iraq is the principal cause of this country’s violence, senior American military officers here say Shiite Muslim militias are a bigger problem, and one that will persist even if al Qaida is defeated.
“The longer-term threat to Iraq is potentially the Shiite militias,” one senior military officer said, echoing concerns that other American officials raised in recent interviews with McClatchy Newspapers.
Military officers hail the fact that violence is down as evidence that their campaign against al Qaida in Iraq is succeeding. But there’s no sign of reconciliation between Sunni Muslims and Shiites, the rationale the Bush administration cites for increasing the number of U.S. troops in the country.
In the months since, as congressional criticism grew, Bush has gone even further, calling al Qaida in Iraq “the same people” responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, though al Qaida in Iraq didn’t form until after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has at best only hazy ties to the al Qaida of Osama bin Laden.
Few officials on the front lines, moreover, think that defeating the terrorist organization would end Iraq’s troubles. They paint a far more complex vision of the violence than is evident in Washington-based pronouncements about al Qaida’s involvement.
The Shiite Mahdi Army militia continues to drive Sunni residents from neighborhoods in Baghdad, a development that one American officer called “disappointing.” Shiite politicians show little sympathy for the expelled Sunnis or interest in stopping the expulsions. In interviews, they argued that the drive against Sunnis is a justified response to Sunni campaigns to drive Shiites from their neighborhoods, a position that American military officers reject.
American officials say they’re hopeful about the recent decision by some Sunni insurgent groups to cooperate with U.S. troops to defeat al Qaida in Iraq. But some of America’s new Sunni allies warn that once they’ve disposed of the religious extremists in their midst, they’ll return to battling rival Shiites — and American occupiers.
Meanwhile, Sunni politicians are boycotting the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and threatening to withdraw permanently if 12 demands aren’t met, including an end to Shiite militias’ infiltration of Iraqi security forces.
More alarming, American officers say that battles for supremacy among armed Shiite groups will be the next challenge, and that U.S. forces are likely to be drawn into those disputes. Already, the U.S. is taking sides, sending attack aircraft to back Iraqi security forces against radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army.