BEHIND THE "SOLDIERS OF HEAVEN"

The Shi'ite "Cult" Militia and Iraq's Apocalypse

by Sarkis Pogossian, WW4 REPORT

What the Bush administration is calling a victory over a strange new insurgent militia in Iraq is actually a sign of the terrifying fragmentation of the war into chaotic factionalism and a general breakdown of society.

At least 250 militants were killed and a US helicopter shot down in clashes near the southern city of Najaf on January 28. For 15 hours, Iraqi forces backed by US jets, choppers and tanks battled hundreds of gunmen in a date palm orchard near the village of Zarqaa. The militants calling themselves the Jund al-Samaa—"Soldiers of Heaven"—were armed with mortars, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and Russian-made Katyusha rockets as well as hundreds of automatic rifles. US and British jets dropped 500-pound bombs on their positions as the battle raged for nearly 24 hours. Hundreds of the militants were killed and taken prisoner. Two US troops died when the helicopter fell, and about 10 Iraqi soldiers and police officers lost their lives. It was the first significant engagement for Iraqi forces in Najaf Province since they officially took over control of security there from the US in December.

Iraqi officials said the group of hundreds fighters was discovered in the orchard the previous evening, prompting to a midnight meeting of local authorities who decided to launch an attack. When the resistance was more fierce than anticipated, they called on US forces for help, officials said.

Asad Abu Ghalal, governor of Najaf Province, told the press the militants had come to assassinate Shi'ite clerics and attack processions of pilgrims converging on the Shi'ite holy city for Ashura, the sacred festival marking the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, at the hands of the Umayyad Caliphate in the 680 CE Battle of Karbala. Najaf protects the golden-domed resting place of Hussein's father and Muhammad's son-in-law, Imam Ali, the founding martyr of Shia Islam. Ashura brings hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims to both cities, despite the growing threat of deadly sectarian violence.

Ghalal told reporters the planned attack "was meant to destroy the Shiite community, kill the grand ayatollahs, destroy the convoys and occupy the holy shrine." He said the militia was led by a man named Ali bin Ali bin Abi Talab, who claimed to be the Mahdi, Shia Islam's Twelfth Imam who disappeared into "occultation" in 874 CE, and whose prophesied return holds apocalyptic portent. The Soldiers of Heaven were said to be the armed force of a new Shi'ite millenarian movement calling itself the Mahdawiya.

The Pentagon is trying to put a positive spin "This is an example of a promise kept," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy commander of the Multi-National Division-Baghdad and the 1st Cavalry Division, told the Associated Press. "Everything worked just as it should have."

But Iraqi authorities made clear that government forces would have been overwhelmed if US air power had not been called in. At a news conference, officials stressed that the mysterious organization was very days away from its planned attacks—which were to include an attempt on the life of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most venerated Shi'ite cleric. "The deadline was very close," Ghalal said..

Conspiracy Theories

Abdul Hussein Abtan, Najaf's deputy governor, called the Soldiers of Heaven "an ideological and military organization with long experience," and said that its leaders came from outside Iraq. He claimed the militant group included Sunnis as well as Shiites and that two Egyptians had been apprehended in Najaf in connection with the fighting, but had escaped, along with a Sudanese and a Lebanese. The New York Times quoted him saying the leaders had rallied a large group of "naive people" over the past two days by proclaiming the return of the Imam Mahdi. "They worked under Shiite slogans, but the capabilities they had in the battle are, for sure, not local ones," he said. "This group had more capabilities than the government."

Abtan said they planned first to seize a major mosque in Najaf, then bombard the police stations and seize the city as power base. "They intended to occupy Najaf, then topple the Iraqi government and kill all the great religious leaders," he told the Associated Press.

The Daily Telegraph reported Feb. 1 that US soldiers confiscated some $10 million in American notes from the ruins of the Soldiers of Heaven compound. Hundreds of weapons including automatic guns and rocket launchers were said to be found, as well as automotive and bomb-making workshops and such unlikely accoutrements as a large swimming pool and an air-conditioned beauty salon. The report also said the remains of three children and six women were among the uncollected dead still littering the site.

Time magazine's website reported Feb. 1 that the site of the supposed compound was bought by Shi'ite migrants from the city of Hilla displaced by the violence in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, who built there a small community complete with school, bakery and infirmary. The Time account also cited Iraqi government sources claiming that "unspeakable and impious things" went on in the compound—including a lurid theory on the purpose behind the pool and beauty salon. The pool is where cultists (including women presumably dolled up at the salon) engaged in ritual sex orgies—"in the apparent belief that immoral behavior would hasten the advent of the Mahdi."

Across Iraq's Shi'ite south, there were incidents officials pointed to as signs of potential attacks timed for the start of Ashura. Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi, the commander in charge of the Najaf region, said cult followers—including women and children—planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and kill as many real pilgrims and clerics as possible. Three gunmen were captured in Najaf after renting a hotel room in front of Grand Ayatollah Sistani's office. Police in Karbala said they had arrested three men—a Saudi, an Afghan and a Moroccan—who were found on the road between Najaf and Karbala with an explosives belt and more explosives in their car.

Clerics in Najaf told the Times the gunmen were part of a Shi'ite faction known as the Mehwadiya that Saddam Hussein helped build in the 1990s to compete with followers of Ayatollah Sistani. They said the Mehwadiya was loyal to Ahmad bin al-Hassan al-Basri, an Iraqi cleric from Hawza, the revered Shi'ite madrassa in Najaf.

Iraq's national security minister, Sherwan al-Waeli, claimed the group's followers were told the killing of Sistani would be a sign that the Mahdi was returning. "No sane person could believe it," Waeli said.

Despite this apparent fanaticism, Gov. Ghalal described the movement as Shi'ite in its "exterior" but not in its "core." He emphasized a possible foreign presence among the militants, claiming some wore the brown, white and maroon regalia of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. Najaf officials later claimed Afghans, Saudis and a Sudanese were among the dead.

The Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), citing an anonymous source in Iraq's security forces, reported that cult leader Ahmad al-Basri was among those killed in the battle—and that he had been detained in Iran before crossing border into Iraq, said Monday an Iraqi security source. By KUNA's account, al-Basri moved to Iran after the fall of Saddam, where he claimed to be an "ambassador" of the Mahdi. After he was released by Iranian authorities, al-Basri returned to the Iraqi city of Basra where he where he gained more followers in the atmosphere of chaos. He then led his supporters to Najaf Province to prepare their seizure of the holy city.

Deputy governor Abtan told the Associated Press the group's leader was identified as Dia Abdul Zahra Kadim, who went by several aliases and had been detained twice in the past few years.

Iraqi officials also used their leader's apparent past links to the Saddam dictatorship to support speculation that the Soldiers of Heaven were cooperating with Sunni militants and Baathist insurgents. The Iraqi army said the staging area they had established in the orchards had once been controlled by Saddam's al-Quds Army, a territorial defense militia the dictator sponsored in the 1990s. Officials said the cultists had dug trenches around the staging area, and that their weaponry and military skills suggested they were not just a homegrown phenomenon. Some broached a link to the so-called "al-Qaeda in Iraq."

However, despite these conjectures, all reports indicated the big majority of the militants were poor Shiite farmers from Najaf Province. Time's account claims the group's arms were looted from al-Quds Army caches on adjacent lands when the Shi'ites moved in after Desert Storm.

Juan Cole, the noted Islamic scholar at the University of Michigan, writes on his Informed Comment web site that the cult has roots in the powerful Shi'ite movement now lead by Moktada al-Sadr, with an armed wing known as the Mahdi Army. "The Mahdawiya is a splinter group of the Sadr movement, which broke away in the late 1990s, and was led by Ahmad al-Hassaani al-Yamani of Diwaniya. He styled himself styled himself Ali b. Ali. b. Abi Talib, that is, he was claiming to be the return of an (otherwise unknown) son of Ali (d. 661), whom Shiites believe was the true successor to the Prophet Muhammad. The Mahdawiya leader is alleged to have been killed in Sunday's battle."

Whilte Iraq's Shi'ite establishment sought to link the Soldiers of Heaven to Baathists and Sunni extremists, jingoists in the United States are seeking to link them to Iran. Prof. Cole dismisses these claims. "The buzz in the Right blogosphere that the Mahdawiya is somehow linked to Iran is a profound falsehood. Sadrist splinter groups in Iraq generally are Iraqi nativist and deeply distrust Iran. These cultists wanted to kill Sistani (an Iranian)."

But the reality could be far more frightening than a mere shadow play by Baathists, al-Qaeda or Iran—the beginnings of an internal Shi'ite civil war, adding a whole new level to the ethnic and sectarian strife now tearing apart Iraq. Writes Cole: "It seems most likely that this was Shiite-on-Shiite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season of Muharram," the sacred month of the Ashura festival. "The dangers of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in Iraq are substantial, as this episode demonstrated."

Shadow Play?

The most ambitious theory was put forth in the UK Independent Jan. 31 by journalist Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad. He wrote of "growing suspicions in Iraq that the official story of the battle outside Najaf...is a fabrication. The heavy casualties may be evidence of an unpremeditated massacre." Cockburn proffered an alternative version, based on "on independent Iraqi websites and in Arabic newspapers," in which the US intervened with indiscriminate force in what started as a small clash between an Iraqi Shi'ite tribe on pilgrimage to Najaf and an Iraqi army checkpoint. Invoking yet another name for the mysterious would-be messiah, Cockburn wrote: "The involvement of Ahmed al-Hassani (also known as Abu Kamar), who believed himself to be the coming Mahdi, or Messiah, appears to have been accidental."

According to Cockburn's sources: "The cult denied it was involved in the fighting, saying it was a peaceful movement. The incident reportedly began when a procession of 200 pilgrims was on its way, on foot, to celebrate Ashura in Najaf. They came from the Hawatim tribe, which lives between Najaf and Diwaniyah to the south, and arrived in the Zarga area, one mile from Najaf at about 6 AM on Sunday. Heading the procession was the chief of the tribe, Hajj Sa'ad Sa'ad Nayif al-Hatemi, and his wife driving in their 1982 Super Toyota sedan because they could not walk. When they reached an Iraqi army checkpoint it opened fire, killing Mr Hatemi, his wife and his driver, Jabar Ridha al-Hatemi. The tribe, fully armed because they were travelling at night, then assaulted the checkpoint to avenge their fallen chief."

Members of a local Shi'ite tribe, the Khaza'il, intervened to try to stop the fighting but themselves came under fire, according to Cockburn's version. Meanwhile, the troops at the checkpoint called up their commanders saying they were under attack by heavily-armed al-Qaeda insurgents. Reinforcements poured into the area and surrounded the Hawatim in the nearby orchards.

US helicopters then arrived and dropped leaflets reading: "To the terrorists, surrender before we bomb the area." The desperate and terrified tribesmen fired on the chopper, bringing it down—or perhaps it was brought down by friendly fire. The air-strikes were then called in—killing at least 120 tribesmen and local residents.

The Iraqi security forces had reasons of their own for the bloodbath. The Hawatim and Khaza'il tribes are both opposed to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party, the Shi'ite political groups which jointly control Najaf and make up the core of the Baghdad government. By Cockburn's account, the Soldiers of Heaven were drawn into the fighting because their presence provided "a convenient excuse for what was in effect a massacre."

Cockburn concedes this his account "cannot be substantiated," citing as sources the Healing Iraq website and the Baghdad daily Azzaman. He notes that this version would explain the disparity between the government casualties—less than 25 by some accounts—and the high number of casualties among the mysterious gunmen, whoever they were. But this does contradict reports (accepted by Juan Cole, among others) that the government forces were nearly overwhelmed before the air-strikes were called in.

Typically, the government seems to be doing all it can to conceal the evidence. Writes Cockburn: "The Iraqi authorities have sealed the site and are not letting reporters talk to the wounded."

Historical background

The annual Ashura pilgrimage has long been politically charged in Iraq. It was periodically banned by Iraq's ruling Sunni minority beginning in the 1930s. Clashes erupted when the Baath Party regime arrested thousannds of pilgrims en route to Karbala in 1977, leaving hundreds dead. Repression of Shi'ite rites escalated again when Saddam Hussein seized control of the Baathist regime and invaded Iran, where a radical Shi'ite regime had just taken power. Under Saddam, more defiant pilgrims were gunned down on the road to Karbala. The city was the center of the 1991 post-Desert Storm Shi'ite uprising, which was brutally put down by Saddam. US forces still holding the area around Basra at that time did nothing to interfere—despite the fact the George HW Bush had encouraged the Shi'ites to revolt.

With tragic irony, the post-Saddam Shi'ite revival has been concomitant with a frenzy of deadly sectarian violence. Beginning with the historic 2003 rites in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's fall, the Ashura celebrations have annually brought hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from throughout Iraq, Iran and as far as Uzbekistan. Simultaneously, the Ashura rites and the holiest Shi'ite shrines have been targeted for relentless terror. Predictably, these serial acts of mass murder and desecration have done nothing to intimidate the Shi'ites; embrace of martyrdom—especially martyrdom at the hands of Sunnis—is the very meaning of Ashura, and is historically central to Shi'ite identity.

In August 2006, a suicide attack at a checkpoint in a market square near Najaf's Imam Ali mosque killed 35.

The prelude to Ashura 2006 brought the February bombing of the gold-domed Shi'ite mosque of Samarra, which holds the tomb of two of Shia's 12 imams, the 10th, Ali al-Hadi, and the 11th, Hadi al-Askari. A second shrine in Samarra indicates where the Mahdi went into "occultation" according to Shiite tradition.

On Aug. 31, 2005, up to 1,000 were killed in a stampede on Baghdad's al-Aaimmah bridge sparked by rumors that a suicide bomber had infiltrated a crowd of one million pilgrims had marching toward the Kadhimiya mosque, the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kazim, one of the twelve Shiite Imams.

In February 2005, for the second year in a row, Ashura celebrations saw a string of suicide attacks, leaving 74 worshippers dead. On March 31, Shi'ites across Iraq celebrated Arabaein (also rendered: Arbayeen), the festival marking the end of Ashura, the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein. A suicide bomber drove a van full of explosives into a crowd of worshippers in the northern city of Tuz Khurmato, killing four, including a child. A similar attack in the Shi'ite holy city of Samarra—although ostensibly aimed at a US military vehicle—left one civilian dead and several injured.

In May 2004 fighting between US forces and the Shiite insurgency led by Moqtada al-Sadr at Najaf's Shrine of Ali, the gold dome was hit by gunfire, and a courtyard wall was damaged in a shell blast. The Shrine of Ali has long been the center of political conflict, and was damaged by Saddam in repression against the Shiite rebellion of 1991. It has more recently been contested by al-Sadr's forces and rival Shiite factions.

In March 2004, Ashura celebrations in Karbala saw 143 killed in attacks by suicide bombers and gunmen with mortars and grenades, especially at the shrine to Imam Musa al-Khadam. Tehran officials claimed at least 20 of dead were Iranians. US officials pointed to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, Jordanian-born leader of the so-called "al-Qaeda in Iraq." One intercepted letter from al-Zarqawi reportedly defended such actions: "Some people will say that this will be a reckless and irresponsible action that will bring the Islamic nation to a battle for which the Islamic nation is unprepared. Souls will perish and blood will be spilled. This is, however, exactly what we want."

On Aug. 29, 2003, a car bomb exploded at Najaf's Shrine of Ali mosque during Friday prayers, killing 75—including one of Iraq's most important Shiite clerics, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, 64, who had just delivered a sermon calling for Iraqi unity. The mosque suffered minor damage, with some mosaic tiles blown off. Ayatollah al-Hakim was leader of the SCIRI. His brother Abdel Aziz al-Hakim became SCIRI's new leader.

That same month, the dome of the shrine of Imam Ali Zein Abeddine, an important Shiite saint, was destroyed in Kurd-Turcoman violence in Kirkuk.

During the US aerial bombardment and invasion of Spring 2003, pro-Saddam resistance fighters took refuge in Najaf's Shrine of Ali. The city's Shiite residents spontaneously mobilized to protect the mosque, demanding that the fighters abandon it and that US troops not enter it. Citizens also gathered at the Imam Hussein Mosque in Karbala to protect it from war damage.

In the aftermath of the invasion, the US managed to woo significant Shi'ite factions into Iraq's new Governing Council, but the group which would prove to have the most power among Shi'ites on the ground refused to cooperate. The Sadr Movement was built by Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, assassinated by Saddam's agents in 1999. Himself a cousin of Shi'ite dissident Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr (executed in 1980), Muhammad Sadiq was repeatedly imprisoned by the regime, and took a hard line against both Saddam and the US. After his death, his son Moqtada al-Sadr assumed leadership of the movement. Sadr movement leaders and militia filled the power vacuum after the fall of Saddam in the Baghdad Shi'ite district known as Saddam City—since renamed Sadr City. The Sadr Movement still has effective control of the district, and areas of strong support in other Shi'ite enclaves.

The Sadr Movement's ultra-conservative cultural line reflects that of the ruling ayatollahs in Iran, but the movement also has an Iraqi nationalist streak that sets it against pro-Iran factions. Chief among these is the SCIRI, whose leader Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim was killed in the car bomb attack on the Shrine of Ali in Najaf on August 29, 2003. SCIRI's 10,000-strong Badr Brigade militia battled Sadr's Mahdi Army for control of East Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. SCIRI agreed to join the Governing Council after Jay Gardner was replaced by Paul Bremer as civilian leader of the occupation. The Badr militia is now thought to largely overlap with the Shi'ite death squads apparently operating out of the Interior Ministry.

Despite the much-sensationalized sabre-rattling between Washington and Tehran, the US seems to have cultivated the Badr Brigade to implement its "Salvador Option" against common enemies—Sunni and Baathist insurgents and militantly independent Shi'ite factions like the Sadr forces.

This also reveals the degree of US desperation in Iraq, and how Washington's real proxies have largely been eliminated, especially among influential Shi'ite factions. More firmly in the US camp was the followers of Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was beaten to death by a mob in Najaf April 10, 2003 apparently having just received $13 million from the CIA. Big wads of cash literally fell from his robes as he was assaulted, by some reprots. The incident was sparked by a contest between Sadr and al-Khoei followers for control of Shrine of Ali—and a stockpile of arms abandoned there by Saddam's Fedayeen militia.

Karbala has also seen strife over access to the shrine of Imam Hussein between Sadr adherents and followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani—who comes closest to being official leader of Iraq's Shi'ites, but who is rejected by the Sadr Movement for being too soft on both the US and Iran.

On April 18, 2003 the Sadr Movement lead the 20,000-strong Baghdad protest against the occupation, with a coordinated simultaneous protest in Karbala—just a day before the historic Shi'ite pilgrimage to Karbala, which had been banned for 20 years by Saddam. The Sadr Movement was also allegedly involved in July riots against US Marine patrols in Karbala, which left one dead and nine wounded when Marines reportedly responded to gunfire from the crowd. Wrote Juan Cole in the Autumn 2003 Middle East Journal: "It seems clear that the future of Iraq is intimately wrought up with the fortunes of the Sadr Movement."

Since the establishment of the ostensibly "sovereign" government in 2004, the Sadr movement has taken seats in Iraq's parliament, while still opposing the US occupation and rejecting SCIRI and Dawa too moderate and beholden to both Washington and (ironically) Tehran. US forces have repeatedly battled Sadr forces in Baghdad, Najaf and elsewhere despite their participation in the government.

Media accounts now claim that the supposed would-be messiah Ahmad bin al-Hassan al-Basri started out as a follower of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr at Najaf's Hawza madrassa, but had a falling-out with him before his 1999 martyrdom. Al-Sadr proved even more powerful as a dead martyr, making al-Hassan's Mehwadiya useful to Saddam's regime as a tool to divide Shi'ite loyalties. Moqtada al-Sadr is now seen as carrying the torch of his father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr—which would make al-Hassan still useful to Moqtada's many enemies. These would include such strange bedfellows as SCIRI, Dawa, Tehran, al-Qaeda, the Baathists—and Washington. Who was arming the self-proclaimed Mahdi, and whether he was really killed or even really planning the spectacular attacks now attributed to his imagination, are questions which may never be answered.

Bloody Ashura

In the prelude to Ashura 2007, there were growing signs of planned attacks. Officials in Karbala said the police arrested three men—a Saudi, an Afghan and a Moroccan—who were found on the road to Najaf with a bomb belt and explosives in their car. Despite the atmosphere of impending doom, some 1.5 million pilgrims converged on Karbala.

The actual Ashura fireworks, while anti-climactic compared to the apparently averted apocalypse, were grimly spectacular enough to satisfy the most extreme fanatic. On Jan. 30, a bomb blast at a Shi'ite mosque in Mandali, Diyala province, left 23 dead and more than 50 wounded. At least ten Kurdish Shi'ite pilgrims were killed and 30 wounded by a roadside bomb as they walked in a street procession in the Diyala town of Khanaqin along the Iranian border. Gunmen in two cars opened fire on a minibus carrying Shi'ite pilgrims in Baghdad, killing at least seven and wounding seven more. Also that day, mortar rounds slammed into Baghdad's Sunni district of Adhamiyah, killing at least 10.

On Feb. 1, two suicide bombers struck a crowded market in the Shi'ite town of Hilla, killing at least 60 and injuring 150. In Baghdad, relentless shelling, a suicide bombing outside a hospital, and a car bomb in a central square killed at least 46.

On Feb. 3, at least 140 were killed and hundreds injured when a truck bomb exploded at a crowded food market in a Shi'ite district of Baghdad. The blast, the single deadliest since the 2003 invasion, leveled some 30 shops and several houses.

In the aftermath of the Ashura carnage, Shi'ites protested that a US-backed "security" plan that had replaced Mahdi Army militiamen with "official" police and US troops in Baghdad had left the populace vulnerable. They said only the Sadr forces had the ability to be effective eyes and ears on the ground and provide real security.

From Asymmetrical to Molecular

The level of carnage in Iraq is now such that spectacular news such as the battle of the Soldiers of Heaven has eclipsed the ongoing, daily horrific violence almost completely from the headlines. On the same day as the notorious battle alone, Jan. 28, two car bombs, including one at a Kurdish market, killed at least 17 in Kirkuk. In Baghdad, 54 bodies were found, many showing signs of torture. At least five girls were killed and 20 wounded when a mortar round hit a school in Adil, a Sunni neighborhood in the capital. A bomb inside a minibus exploded in a Shiite area of the capital, killing one and wounding five. Meanwhile, in the Sunni area of Yarmouk in western Baghdad, gunmen killed four, including a consultant with the Ministry of Industry and his daughter, who were shot on their way to work. That night, heavy clashes broke out in Yarmouk, with machine-gun and mortar fire echoing for hours.

The attacks in Kirkuk are especially troubling, as they indicate that the Kurdish north, heretofore a relative island of stability, could be embroiled in the escalating social chaos. Kirkuk lies outside the Kurdish autonomous zone but is coveted by the Kurdish leaders as their capital—leading to a tense three-way political struggle for the city between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. On Feb. 3, eight car bombs exploded in Kirkuk, targeting the offices of the Kurdish nationalist parties and a Turkmen neighborhood, killing two and injuring 40.

Another disturbing signal is that even the pacifistic Sufis have declared a jihad against both the US occupation and the fundamentalist Shi'ites who would like to exterminate them as apostates. The Washington Post reported Aug. 26, 2006 that Sufi leaders Sheik Mohammed al-Qadiri, announced that his followers would form a new armed group, the Battalions of Shikh Abdul Qadir al-Gaillani. "We will not wait for the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade to enter our houses and kill us," said Ahmed al-Soffi, a Sufi leader in Fallujah. "We will fight the Americans and the Shiites who are against us."

The potential for a confused Shi'ite civil war adds a new dimension to the struggle between the religious and ethnic groups, and against the occupation troops. It points to the conflict metamorphosing beyond the current Pentagon model of "asymmetrical warfare" to what some have called "molecular" warfare—a conflict so ultra-fragmented that sides are nearly impossible to even identify: rather than a struggle between two unequal forces (the US versus "the terrorists"), a far more terrifying contest of multiple armed ethno-religious micro-factions against both the US and each other. Something on the model of Lebanon in the 1980s—but potentially much, much worse.

Sending in more US troops will only hasten Iraq's apocalypse, by allowing all bloody factions to portray themselves as the "resistance," and their ethno-religious enemies as collaborators. We must accept the fact that at this late date, a US withdrawal may be insufficient to keep Iraq from continuing to descend into social apocalypse. But we must also face the fact that it remains the first, absolutely necessary step before there can even be any hope for de-escalation.
———

RESOURCES:

KUNA, Jan. 29
http://www.kuna.net.kw/Home/Story.aspx?Language=en&DSNO=947299

AP, Jan. 29
http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/16574871.htm

AP, Jan. 29
http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/World/2007/01/29/3475076-ap.html

Time, Feb. 1
http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1584739,00.html

The Independent, Jan. 31
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article2201103.ece

Healing Iraq
http://healingiraq.blogspot.com/

Juan Cole's Informed Comment
http://www.juancole.com/

The Hidden Imam
WSU "Earlly & Medieval Shia" site
http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/SHIA/HIDDEN.HTM

From our weblog:

Iraq: slaughter of the innocents
WW4 REPORT, Jan. 31, 2007
http://ww4report.com/node/3108

Najaf: Shrine of Ali once again target of sectarian warfare
WW4 REPORT, Aug. 11, 2006
http://ww4report.com/node/2310

Iraq: Samarra's al-Askari dome destroyed
WW4 REPORT, Feb. 22, 2006
http://ww4report.com/node/1642

More Pakistan terror: sectarian—or random?
WW4 REPORT, Jan. 27, 2007
http://ww4report.com/node/3101

Ashura violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan
WW4 REPORT, Feb.10, 2006
http://www.ww4report.com/node/1573

Brits go "guerilla" in Iraq marshlands; Sufis declare jihad
WW4 REPORT, Aug. 26, 2006
http://www.ww4report.com/node/2385

Iraq: "Salvador option" revealed
WW4 REPORT, Nov. 16, 2005
http://www.ww4report.com/node/1292

From our archive:

MOST POWERFUL SHI'ITE FACTION REJECTS OCCUPATION
WW4 REPORT #94, January 2004
http://ww4report.com/static/94.html#iraq13

KARBALA PILGRIMAGE SHOWS SHI'ITE POWER
WW4 REPORT #83. April 28, 2003
http://ww4report.com/static/83.html#iraq1

KARBALA AND NAJAF: SHI'ITE HOLY CITIES UNDER BOMBARDMENT
WW4 REPORT #80. April 7, 2003
http://ww4report.com/static/80.html#iraq11

See also:

SUFISM AND THE STRUGGLE WITHIN ISLAM
Paradoxical Legacies of the Militant Mystics
by Khaleb Khazari-El
WW4 REPORT #123, July 2006
http://www.ww4report.com/node/2151

EASTERN ANATOLIA: IRAQ'S NEXT DOMINO
by Sarkis Pogossian
WW4 REPORT #115, November 2005
http://ww4report.com/node/1238

CIVIL WAR IN IRAQ: ALREADY HERE?
by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #114, October 2005
http://ww4report.com/node/1151

CAN IRAQ AVOID CIVIL WAR?
(And Can the U.S. Anti-War Movement Help?)
by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #109, May 2005
http://www.ww4report.com/node/456

Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Feb. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution