‘Special Groups’: A ‘Useful Fiction’

In a story on the continuing fighting in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, the LA Times reports that “the U.S. military has tied itself into a verbal knot as it tries to avoid further inflaming tensions with Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr while confronting members of his Mahdi Army militia.”

U.S. forces battle almost daily with Shiite militiamen in Sadr City, including Sadr loyalists, but commanders are careful to avoid blaming the Mahdi Army for the violence. […]

The military still insists that Sadr’s Mahdi Army is not its main problem, saying it is “special groups” that have broken away from Sadr’s control. Those groups are trained and armed by Iran and not bound by Sadr’s directives.

However, military officials acknowledge that mainstream Mahdi Army elements took part in the initial fighting that erupted March 25 against an offensive launched by U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces.

Abu Muqawama’s Dr. iRack notes rightly that “the notion of ‘special groups’ — JAM factions that supposedly have close ties to Iran’s Quds force — is, in many respects, a useful fiction,” as it allows U.S. forces to move against elements of Sadr’s militia without appearing to directly challenge Sadr’s wider political movement, which is the largest in Iraq. But, as iRack notes, the U.S. military has “made a habit of describing all JAMsters who violate the ‘freeze’ on armed activities declared by Moqtada al-Sadr last August as ‘special groups.’ “

[This] creates a false impression that the majority of JAMsters fighting U.S. forces take their orders directly from the mullahs in Iran (much as the use of the label “Al Qaeda in Iraq” as a catch all term for a disparate and very loosely aligned collection Sunni insurgent groups creates the false impression that most Sunni insurgents take their orders from Bin Laden or the foreign leadership of AQI).

The Bush administration has consistently tried to blame outside actors for violence in Iraq in order to avoid facing the unpleasant truth that the U.S. occupation is opposed by a substantial majority of the population who the U.S. is ostensibly there to support. In seeking to defend a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, the administration and its supporters have drawn a deeply distorted picture of the political struggles currently taking place within various Iraqi communities.


In this podcast, New York Times reporters Alissa Rubin and Stephen Farrell discuss the situation on the ground in Sadr City. Farrell characterizes the current fighting as part of an intra-Shia struggle between “the haves and have nots, the establishment and outsiders.”

You have the people who rule the street and the people who run the government. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many Iraqis who would wholeheartedly side with the idea that somehow the official democratic clean honest wonderful government is bringing law and order to an undisciplined rabble. I think most people, certainly most Sunnis that you talk to, would see this as a fight between a militia [ISCI/Badr] which happens to have turned itself into the government army and a militia [Sadr’s Mahdi Army] which hasn’t. The insiders and the outsiders.

Since very early in the occupation of Iraq, the United States has been willing to work with ISCI because it was willing to work with the U.S. That is, they recognized, for the moment, the authority of the U.S. occupation. The Sadrists did not, which resulted in the U.S.’s freezing them out of a political process which the Sadrists in any case viewed as illegitimate. This allowed ISCI to establish itself within the Iraqi government to a far greater extent than its relatively small political base could reasonably justify, and to incorporate large numbers of its (Iranian trained and supported) militia into the security services.

To put it simply, the U.S. is opposing Sadr because he opposes the U.S. occupation, and the U.S. is supporting ISCI because ISCI supports the occupation. As Brian Katulis and I noted in an op-ed several weeks ago, the irony of this strategy is that it has allied the United States with Iran’s primary proxy in the Iraqi government, against what is arguably the most potent nationalist political force in the country.