Keyser Söze in Sadr City

Posted by Cutler on August 08, 2006

The US seems to be once again spoiling for a fight in Sadr City. According to a report in the Washington Post (“US-Backed Operation Targets Shiite Slum“), the raid took place in the predawn hours of Monday morning.

US forces led a raid in March 2006, and a set of raids again in early July. I offered an alaysis of the July raids in a previous post.

Swopa has been minding the “Sadr City Volcano” (here and here) waiting for it to blow, especially in light of Sadrist anger over US-backed Israeli attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon and a new intensification of US forces in Baghdad. The Associated Press reported that “hundreds of thousands” of Shiites marched through Sadr City on Friday (August 4th) chanting “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.”

By some measures, the Monday morning raids might be interpreted as either US “punishment” for Friday’s Sadr City march and/or as the force that finally blew the lid off the Sadrist volcano. The Post article suggests that US and Iraqi forces met considerable resistance:

The Iraqi troops who conducted the raid, along with their U.S. advisers, came under fire at the outset, the statement said, and “the fire lasted for the duration of the operation and continued as they left the neighborhood.”

The raid prompted Prime Minister Maliki to disavow and condemn the action of the US and his own armed forces. According to South Africa’s

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he had not authorised what he called Sunday’s “unjustified” night time assault by Iraqi troops and US advisers on a target in the impoverished east Baghdad suburb of Sadr City…

Speaking on state television, Maliki said such raids “should not happen again in order to protect the reconciliation process.

“I reiterate my rejection to such an operation and it should not be executed without my consent. This particular operation did not have my approval.”

So, is this the beginning of a major eruption?

Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. An Associated Press report by Robert H. Reid in the Washington Post (“Firebrand Critic More Cautious“) notes the “failure to launch.”

U.S. and Iraqi forces strike the Baghdad base of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr–but his gunmen hold their fire. U.S. soldiers kill 15 of al-Sadr’s followers, drawing little more than a few perfunctory complaints.

That’s a dramatic departure in style for the youthful firebrand, who launched two major uprisings against the American-led coalition two years ago when U.S. authorities closed his newspaper and pushed an Iraqi judge into issuing an arrest warrant against him.

An article in the Boston Globe quotes an anonymous US official in Baghdad:

“It’s true that we are targeting death squads, but we are not going after the Madhi Army in particular,” said a US official based in Baghdad, speaking in a telephone interview on condition of anonymity. “If we were, it would be much more violent here. It would be a very big fight.”

The attempt to distinguish between “death squads” and the “Madhi Army” may sound like a self-serving qualification (like the distinction between terrorists and insurgents, I suppose). But the interesting part of the quote is the frank acknowledgement that any move on the Madhi Army as such would be “a very big fight”–bigger than the current level of resistance to US raids. In other words, the official is downplaying the extent of the current level of resistance.

If so, it may be because there may be more than a merely semantic difference between the “death squads” in question and the Madhi Army. Consider, as I did in my previous post on US raids in Sadr City, that the Sadrist “movement” is split and that Sadr is essentially acquiescing in US attempts to crush a “rogue” Sadrist faction.

Who is Abu Dereh?

Back in the July raids on Sadr city, the US claimed that its true target was a militant leader involved “in the transfer of weapons from Syria into Iraq” in an effort to break away “from his current insurgent organization.”

Local residents in Sadr City suggested that the intended target of the operation was a figure named “Abu Dera.”

In mid-July, Phillip Robertson filed a three-part article (here, here, and here) for in which he provided a profile of Abu Dera (or, Abu Dereh in Robertson’s spelling) that paints a portrait that resembling the portrait of Keyser Söze painted by Roger “Verbal” Kint (played by Kevin Spacey) in the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects.

All sorts of rumors and myths circulate about Abu Dereh. One myth has him driving deep into Sunni-held territory in Anbar province and burning entire villages, while another says that he was a refugee of the great marshes in the south, and when Saddam drained them as punishment for the uprisings after the first gulf war, he fled to Sadr City, or Thawra as it was called. Abu Dereh, which means “father of shield” (“shield” is a proper noun in Arabic), is not his real name, it is a nom de guerre. Whenever it was uttered, the Baghdadi who hears it becomes serious and drops his voice so he could not be overheard.

Robertson doesn’t give much credence to the idea of any kind of split between Abu Dereh and Sadr:

Dereh is a shadowy figure who has deep connections with the Mahdi Army. A spokesman for the group, Abdel Hadi Al Darragi, has stated that Abu Dereh is not part of the Mahdi Army, but this is implausible. Anyone operating openly in Sadr City would almost certainly have at least tacit support from Sadr’s men. Sadr City is tightly controlled by the Mahdi Army and other groups are not allowed to operate there.

Sadr has plenty of reason, like the character in The Usual Suspects, to invent such a figure and then to deny any responsibility or connection in order to disguise his own complicity. I get that.

Sometimes, however, there are real splits for real reasons. I have in mind chiefly the possibility of movement factionalism over Sadr’s decision to participate in government prior to the complete withdrawal of US forces.

When factional fissures do develop, the “nearest” enemy is often enemy number one despite–or, better, because of–broad areas of overlapping political agendas and/or geographic proximity.

Sadr’s top aides condemned the US raids, but seemed quite satisfied by Maliki’s apologetic televised comments. Indeed, according to an Associated Press report in the Guardian, the Sadr forces have called for restraint and a bit of house cleaning:

In a statement read out at all Mahdi Army offices, al-Sadr urged his militiamen to be “calm and patient, and avoid being drawn into civil war,” said the cleric’s aide, Mohammed al-Fartousi.He said al-Sadr urged the militiamen to purge all those who bring the Mahdi Army into disrepute. They should also “denounce the kidnapping of Iraqis, denounce destruction of mosques and denounce killing of innocent people,” said his aide, Mohammed al-Fartousi.

See, now, to me that sounds pretty much like the Sadrists are not so unhappy with US assistance in the dirty business of an internal purge aimed at insulating Sadr from some of his more unruly ranks as he marches toward the political incorporation within a US-backed regime.

Maybe Sadr’s call for a purge is simply a smoke screen to disguise his own complicity in kidnapping, death squads, sectarian violence, etc.

Or maybe Maliki’s “outrage” at the US raid is the smoke screen–to disguise his and Sadr’s own complicity in a purge of more radical, anti-US Sadrist factional players.

Got a hunch?

2 Comments to Keyser Söze in Sadr City

  • I shan’t join in your speculations here, but I shall suggest that all users in print of the expression “firebrand cleric” should be taken out and shot. After the salutory effects of this have worn off, I suggest we proceed to shoot all those who use the expression “Hezbollah strongholds”.

  • I was told by a guy who spent a lot of time studying Shi’ite groups in Iraq that a lot of groups that say they are the Mahdi army are really just criminal gangs.

    My bet is that the real Sadrists didn’t want to take these guys on, and that there was a tacit deal with the US to do so.

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