One reason parts of Iraq have quieted down, at least for a while, has received widespread attention: the Sunni split from al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s own tactics alienated its base, which is usually a fatal political mistake, and for once we were wise enough not to get in the way of an enemy who was making a blunder.
But there has been little comment on an equally important reason for improved stability in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr’s stand-down order to his Mahdi Army militia. Just as it seemed we were headed straight for a war with the Shiites, they sheered away. We now appear to be doing the same; at least the papers here no longer report daily raids and air strikes on Shiite areas. That too suggests we may have learned something.
But it does not explain the Mahdi Army’s quiescence. I have no secret agent in the Desert Fox’s lair, so I cannot report what Mr. al-Sadr is thinking. I doubt he is afraid of a confrontation with the U.S. military. Fighting the Americans is more likely to strengthen than weaken his hold on his own movement. So what gives?
The Sunday, November 18 New York Times made passing mention of a possible clue. It suggested that the Mahdi Army and some other Shiites have backed away from confronting the U.S. because Iran asked them to.
If that is true, it bumps the same question up a level. Why are the Iranians asking their allies in Iraq to give us a break? I doubt it is out of charity, or fear, although elements within Iran that do not want a war with the United States seem to be gaining political strength.
Here’s a hypothesis. What if the Iranians had determined, rightly or wrongly (and I suspect rightly), that the Bush administration has already decided to attack Iran before the end of its term? Two actions would seem logical on their part. First, try to maneuver the Americans into the worst possible position on the moral level by denying them pretexts for an attack. Telling their allied Shiite militias in Iraq to cool it would be part of that, as would reducing the flow of Iranian arms to Iraqi insurgents and improving cooperation with the international community on the nuclear issue. We see evidence of the latter two actions as well as the first.
Second, they would tell their allies in Iraq to keep their powder dry. Back off for now, train, build up stocks of weapons and explosives and work out plans for what they will do as their part of the Iranian counter-attack. Counter-attack there will certainly be, on the ground against our forces in Iraq, in one form or another. In almost all possible counter-attack scenarios, it would be highly valuable to Iran if the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias could cut the Americans’ supply lines running up from Kuwait and slow down their movements so that they could not mass their widely dispersed forces. In John Boyd’s phrase, it would be a classic Cheng-Chi operation.
Again, I cannot say this is what lies behind the Mahdi Army’s stand-down; Zeppelin reconnaissance over Iran has been inconclusive. But it is consistent with three probabilities: that the Bush administration has decided to bomb Iran, that the Iranians plan in response to roll up our army in Iraq and that Muqtada al-Sadr and other Iraqi Shiite leaders coordinate their actions closely with Tehran.
In past wars, quiet periods at the front have often preceded a “big push” by one side or both. Such may prove to be the case in Iraq as well, at least as far as Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army are concerned. If so, in view of the situations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Lebanon and the almost certain failure of the Tea Lady’s Annapolis initiative, 2008 may see the Islamic world in flames from the Himalayas to the Mediterranean. To paraphrase Horace Greeley, buy gold, young man, buy gold.
William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.