The Splintering of the Mahdi Army
So far, the bulk of the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq, has been from Sunni groups (from gangs to jihadis to ex-Baathists). These numerous groups operate within an open source framework which is both resistant to counter-insurgency/political resolution and extremely quick to learn/adapt. Further, the relative modernity of Iraq features vectors of cross-connection that undermine any and all attempts at clearing/holding territory (the core of the Petraeus plan). As a result, no progress will be made against the insurgency. In fact, there are strong signs that the open source insurgency has found ways to keep up its momentum.In contrast, the Shiite opposition to the US occupation has been primarily political. This opposition has taken the form of corruption (through sectarianism in the ranks of the police/army/government organizations) and an occasional revolt by Sadrist militias (to curry political favor). However, that status quo (which once formed a sort of controlled chaos through 'loyalist paramilitaries') is in the process of rapid devolution. The US military and political campaign against Sadr's militia, as part of a political bid to bring Sunni groups into the government, has caused the Mahdi Army to fragment. These new small splinter groups fall into three categories (with help from the University of California's Babak Rahimi):
- Mahdistic (Najaf and Basra). Target: the increasingly irrelevant Shiite establishment in Najaf and the Iraqi government.
- Sectarian militias (primarily in Sadr City) Target: Sunni groups and the US military.
- Regional militias. Specifically, the remnants of Sadr's militia and the Fadhila party (an off-shoot of Sadrist movement) in a contest for control of Basra and the Southern oil company.
Real ChaosThese groups, in contrast to their former host organization (which was similar in cohesion and approach to the Hezbollah and Hamas), are driven by loyalties that transcend the national political dialogue. As a result, they are relatively immune to political reconciliation. Over the next year, pressure applied by the US military and the Iraqi government will likely force these groups to recast themselves in a fashion similar to the open source Sunni insurgency (with all of the formlessness, speed, swarming, innovation, etc. that implies). This means that attacks against the government and the US military will inexorably escalate from Baghdad to the southeast. These attacks will take three forms:
- Systems disruption that targets the southern oil fields and export infrastructure -- this month's bombing of a pipeline from the Rumaila oil field is an early data point. This disruption will increasingly starve the Iraqi government of its only source of revenue and drive up global oil prices.
- IED attacks on US supply lines. The US supply routes from Kuwait will fall under increasing attack. This will create shortages of fuel/power and ancillary goods at the big US bases (really small cities completely supplied from the outside).
- Attacks on Shiite religious leadership that will fracture Shiite social bonds and potentially the already hollow government.