U.S. failure to neutralize Shiite militia in Iraq threatens to snarl pullout

By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Thursday, March 4, 2010; A10

BAGHDAD -- A failed effort by the United States to neutralize a powerful Shiite militant group in Iraq has left in place a dangerous force whose attacks on American troops threaten to complicate the U.S. drawdown, according to American and Iraqi officials.

The group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, kidnapped an American defense contractor last month, and U.S. officials say its members appear to be forming alliances with other Shiite militias to attack Baghdad's Green Zone and U.S. military bases with rockets.

Until this year, the group's leader, Qais al-Khazali, was in U.S. custody. His release came after negotiations with American and Iraqi officials that left the United States hopeful that Khazali would renounce violence and steer his men toward the political system, removing his group from the long list of threats facing U.S. forces.

But the episode appears to have only increased the clout wielded by Khazali, a onetime deputy to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who has become the leader of one of the most organized and lethal Shiite militias in Iraq, one with close ties to Iran. The failed attempt at reconciliation also serves as a cautionary tale at a time when the United States is trying to neutralize insurgent groups not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

This account of the U.S. military's failure to wean Asaib Ahl al-Haq from militancy has been drawn from interviews with Sami al-Askari, an Iraqi lawmaker who was the government's point man in the negotiations, and two U.S. military officials, who largely corroborated his description.

"They're going to try to target U.S. forces as we ramp up our drawdown," Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, a commander in Baghdad, said of Khazali's forces. "It will be in an effort to claim some sort of credit for the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq."

Rise of Asaib Ahl al-Haq

Khazali, who is in his late 30s, is a soft-spoken, cerebral man who studied under Sadr's father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, a revered figure among Iraqi Shiites who rallied the Shiite poor under Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime. Khazali was a deputy to the younger Sadr when the cleric's Mahdi Army began fighting the American military after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but he split from Sadr in 2004.

At its peak, the Mahdi Army had tens of thousands of fighters who reported to local chieftains. But its power ebbed as Sadr turned out to be an erratic and ineffective leader. For at least the past two years, the Mahdi Army has in many ways been eclipsed by splinter groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which U.S. officials say has received training, money and weapons from Iran as part of an effort by Tehran to wage a proxy war against the United States on Iraqi soil.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq became a top concern for U.S. officials in January 2007 after the group executed five American soldiers based at a government building in the southern city of Karbala. Later that year, the group kidnapped a British citizen working as a consultant at the Iraqi Finance Ministry, along with his four bodyguards, also Britons. The group has also used armor-piercing roadside bombs and powerful rockets to attack U.S. troops.

Khazali was among the members of the group rounded up by American soldiers in late 2007 in connection with the Karbala operation. Having succeeded in undermining the Sunni insurgency in Iraq by putting tens of thousands of fighters on U.S. payroll, American and British commanders thought that Khazali's Shiite group could be similarly co-opted.

In fall 2008, U.S. officials began to broker meetings between Khazali and their Iraqi counterparts, including one that led to Khazali ordering a cease-fire and negotiating the release of more than 450 people from U.S. custody whom he identified as Asaib Ahl al-Haq members. About 200 of the men remain in Iraqi custody, a situation that has angered the group.

U.S. forces released Khazali in early January, a day after the group released the British contractor, Peter Moore. Iraqi officials say this turn of events has encouraged the group to see hostage-taking as a way to win release of its fighters.

High stakes in elections

U.S. and Iraqi officials suspect, however, that since his release, Khazali has traveled to Iran, where his family resides and where Asaib Ahl al-Haq's leaders are based. He also has stopped talking to Iraqi government officials and to the U.S. military. And the cease-fire has broken down over the past six weeks.

On Jan. 17, Iraqi and U.S. Special Forces soldiers took two Asaib Ahl al-Haq members into custody during an operation in Baghdad targeting members of another militia loyal to Sadr, called the Promised Day Brigade. The men were on a target list of Asaib Ahl al-Haq members circulated within the U.S. military.

Days later, the Green Zone started getting attacked with powerful rockets, some of them landing in or near the U.S. Embassy compound.

On Jan. 23, an American working for a military task force that analyzes sociological trends was kidnapped in Iraq, the first such case in more than a year. A Web site used by Asaib Ahl al-Haq has posted a video of the captive, Issa T. Salomi, and in recent days has published articles calling on Shiite militias to put their differences aside and reassert their commitment to fight what they see as the continued occupation of Iraq.

The U.S. military now has no more than a handful of Asaib Ahl al-Haq members in custody. American and Iraqi officials worry that violence could intensify after parliamentary elections on Sunday, particularly if Shiite candidates favored by Iran do poorly.

"The implicit threat is that if Iran is unable to achieve its objectives one way, it has militia groups that it can use to turn up the violence," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of War who has written extensively about Shiite militias. "The stakes are very high for Iran in this election. It's not surprising if they're pursuing concurring actions."

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