WASHINGTON, March 29 (UPI) -- The killing of between 16 and 37 members of Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia by U.S. forces Sunday may herald a massive escalation of the Iraq conflict.
And it could prove extremely dangerous for U.S. forces there.
For all the ongoing ferocity and unexpected staying power of the Iraqi insurgency, up to now it has been confined to the Sunni Muslim minority of only around five million people, or 20 percent of the total population of the country. And it has been almost entirely contained within two predominantly Sunni provinces in central Iraq and in the capital Baghdad. The Sunnis do not control any part of the more than 200,000-strong new Iraqi police and military forces. The Shiites do, through their tight grip on Iraq's new defense and interior ministries.
But the more U.S. forces clash with the Mahdi Army militia force of Sadr, the more they risk alienating major elements within the majority Shiite community of 15 million Iraqis, or 60 percent of the total population, that U.S. policy has systematically empowered over the past three years.
Bush administration policymakers recognize that Sadr is ferociously anti-American and is determined to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq. They also correctly assess him as being strongly supported with funding and even weapons by neighboring Iran.
But even the current Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has refused to tow Washington's line and has openly and energetically been building close security and diplomatic ties to Tehran that have been unprecedented in the entire independent history of Iraqi throughout the past century.
Also, Sadr is far from being the marginal figure in Iraqi politics and society that so many administration policymakers and their mouthpieces on American op-ed pages still insist on seeing him as. Parties that he quietly endorsed or approved did well in the Shiite community, especially across southern Iraq, in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. And since those elections his Mahdi Army, supported by Iran, has quietly but energetically stepped up its policy of networking close organized cooperation with other Shiite militias across southern Iraq and with the backing of Iran.
British military intelligence has been monitoring this process. And the more than 8,000 strong British military contingent across previously peaceful southern Iraq has been reporting a steady process of stepped up hostility, tensions and confrontation with Shiite militia networks there.
The explosion of Shiite retaliation killings and even massacres of Sunnis in central Iraq following the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara on Feb. 22 has also served grim notice to U.S policymakers that the new Iraqi security forces have a will and momentum of their own and cannot be easily or automatically controlled by the U.S. advisers and forces that did so much to help create them.
This means that U.S. forces in Iraq are not free to act against Sadr's forces in a local political vacuum. Indeed, within a day of the clash that killed more than a score of Sadr's followers, the Shiite governor of Baghdad announced that he was suspending cooperation with U.S. forces.
Some U.S. defense intellectuals have argued the now-fashionable nostrum of targeted killings or assassinations of insurgency local leaders or prominent cadre figures to "decapitate" insurgencies such as the Sunni one in Iraq.
But pursuing that kind of policy against the Mahdi Army or against Sadr himself would risk huge dangers. The Shiite branch of the Muslim faith has always been fixated on the martyrdom of heroic and righteous leaders and Sadr's father and two brothers both died violent and mysterious deaths, apparently at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime, years ago. If Sadr were to die violently too, and if the event could be plausibly, even if falsely, laid at America's door, it could set off a huge popular violent uprising across Shiite Iraq eagerly fanned by Iran.
However hard going the 130,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq find things now against the Sunni insurgency, it would be vastly worse if they faced a far larger insurgency simultaneously from within the Shiite community that could, at the very least, count on intelligence and some degree of cooperation from elements within the new Shiite-dominated police and military forces. Land supply routes to U.S. forces in Baghdad and central Iraq from Kuwait and the Gulf might then be interdicted and the Pentagon might be forced to rely on air transport, at least in the short term, to supply U.S. forces in the heart of the country.
The rapid, tactically brilliant ground forces operation in driving to Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein in only three weeks in March-April 2003 was followed by a now well-documented period when U.S, policymakers completely failed to recognize what the social and political dynamics of the fractured country were, as the Sunni insurgency struck down deep roots and gathered formidable strength. Escalating clashes with Sadr's Mahdi Army carry far greater dangers today. U.S. policymakers and troops on the ground have already discovered the hard way that Iraq is not the kind of place to rush into confrontations without counting the cost in advance.