Signs of Progress

From Holden:

It seems that things are just peachy in our 51st state.

Reuters headline: Baghdad Street Battle Smacks of Open Civil War

Snipers held rooftop positions as masked Sunni Arab insurgents said they were gearing up for another open street battle with pro-government Shi’ite militiamen in Baghdad’s Adhamiya district on Tuesday.


Fighting was so fierce that U.S. reinforcements were brought in to the northern district, home to some of Iraq’s most hardcore Sunni guerrillas and the Abu Hanifa mosque, near where Saddam Hussein was last seen in public before going into hiding.


While the February bombing of a Shi’ite shrine pushed Iraq to the edge of civil war and left hundreds of bodies with bullet holes and torture marks on the streets, the scenario in Adhamiya is more alarming, despite fewer casualties.

It appeared to be the first example of a large-scale, open sectarian street battle in the capital, if not all of Iraq.

True to form, the Bush Assministration either ignored or scoffed at repeated warnings about the dangerous rise of Shiite militias for years.

U.S. officials were warned for more than two years that Shiite Muslim militias were infiltrating Iraq’s security forces and taking control of neighborhoods, but they failed to take action to counteract it, Iraqi and American officials said.

Now American officials call the militias the primary security concern in Iraq, blaming them for more civilian deaths than the Sunni Muslim-based insurgency and demanding that the Iraqi government move quickly to stem their influence.

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From Holden:

U.S. officials concede that they didn’t act, in part because they were focused on fighting the Sunni-dominated insurgency and on recruiting and training Iraqi security forces.

“Last year, as we worked through the problem set, that (militias) wasn’t a problem set we focused on,” Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top American military spokesman, said at a recent news briefing.

U.S. inaction gave the militias, with support from Iran, time to become a major force inside and outside the Iraqi government, and American officials acknowledge that dislodging them now would be difficult.

Among U.S. officials’ missteps:

-White House and Pentagon officials ignored a stream of warnings from American intelligence agencies about the mounting danger posed by two Shiite militias, the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army. The Badr Organization is the armed wing of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the most powerful Shiite political faction in the country; the Mahdi Army is loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

-A group of high-ranking Iraqis appointed in 2004 to persuade militia leaders to disband their groups received no funding and was allowed to wither away.

-U.S. diplomats in Baghdad were slow to recognize that the majority Shiite population’s ascent to political power would expand rather than diminish militia activity. Many believed that the groups’ members would retire or would be integrated into the security forces without significant problems.

-Acting against the Shiite militias would have undercut the administration’s arguments that foreign terrorists and holdovers from Saddam Hussein’s regime were the problem in Iraq. It also would have raised doubts about the administration’s reliance on training largely Shiite security forces to replace U.S. troops in Iraq.


L. Paul Bremer, then the top American official in Iraq, and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell wanted to destroy al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia in 2004, but Pentagon officials and U.S. military commanders balked, saying it was unwise to open a new battle with Shiite fighters at the same time the United States was concentrating on the Sunni insurgency.


“The American politicians couldn’t understand the deepness and complications of the region,” said Falah al-Nakib, the interior minister from June 2004 to April 2005, who said he raised the militia problem and the growing Iranian influence in Iraq with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. “They didn’t take us seriously.”


Officials in Washington said alarms about the growing power of the militias began in late 2003 and were raised throughout 2004 and 2005 by a variety of agencies, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Senior officials dismissed the reports as “nay-saying” and “hand-wringing,” [boy, that sounds like Rumsfeld, doesn’t it?] said two former senior officials in Washington who were responsible for Iraq policy through most or all of that period and one top official who remains in government.


Other officials showed little zeal to investigate militia activity, in spite of the growing evidence that they’d infiltrated Iraqi police commando units and were using their positions to kill Sunnis.

Asked last June about the possibility, Steven Casteel, a senior U.S. adviser to the Interior Ministry, brushed the question aside.

“The small numbers that we’ve investigated we’ve found to be either rumor or innuendo,” he told Knight Ridder at the time.


The issue gained attention last November when American forces discovered more than 160 prisoners at a secret Interior Ministry bunker. Many had been beaten with leather belts and steel rods and forced to sit in their own excrement in tiny cells crammed with dozens of prisoners. Two police officers who had knowledge of the facility said Badr ran it.

The two U.S. officials at the American Embassy in Baghdad were asked what steps the U.S. mission in Iraq had taken before the bunker raid. One of them replied: “Nothing’s jumping to my mind right off the bat.”