By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The big question looming over United States-Iraqi negotiations on a US military presence after 2011 is what game Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr is playing on the issue.
United States officials regard Muqtada as still resisting the US military presence illegally and are demanding that Muqtada call off his Promised Day Brigades completely.
But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's main point of contact with Muqtada says he is playing a double game and does not intend to obstruct the negotiations on a deal for the stationing of 10,000 or more US troops from 2012 onward.
Muqtada made a crucial move over the weekend toward accepting such an agreement between the Barack Obama administration and the Maliki government, according to a senior Iraqi intelligence official in the International Liaison Office (ILO). The ILO is an arm of Iraqi military intelligence that is run by a former East German intelligence official who was Muqtada's political adviser during the height of the US war against the Sadrists in 2007-08.
Muqtada agreed in an unpublicized direct exchange of views with Maliki that he would not exploit a request by Maliki to Obama to station US troops in Iraq beyond this year by attacking Maliki politically or threatening his government, the senior Iraqi intelligence official told Inter Press Service (IPS).
The popular Shi'ite leader has maintained a longstanding threat to withdraw support from the government over the US military presence. But when questioned directly by Maliki about his intentions, Muqtada agreed that there would be no repeat of his 2006 withdrawal of Sadrist ministers from Maliki's first government over that issue, according to an account of the exchange provided by the Iraqi intelligence official.
"Maliki called Sadr's bluff," he said.
Muqtada's ambiguous position on the US troop presence is understood by the ILO to be key to his role as kingmaker in Maliki's government, as well as his need to maintain the support of the poor and dispossessed Shi'ite who represent his political power base.
"He has to placate two different constituencies," the official told IPS. That means taking a hard line on the US troop presence in Arabic language public statements meant for his Shi'ite constituency, but taking an accommodating line in private contacts with Maliki.
Muqtada has displayed an uncompromising posture toward the US military presence in recent weeks. The Promised Day Brigade, which Muqtada created in 2008 to fight against US forces, had attacked US bases and troop convoys in June. The establishment of the brigade followed the disbanding of Muqtada's Mahdi Army in June 2008
The brigade issued a statement on June 28 claiming responsibility for 10 mortar and Katyusha rocket attacks against US bases around the country as well as attacks on US military convoys, saying that the attacks had "killed and wounded a number of US soldiers".
Attacks by Shi'ite militias killed 15 US troops in June - the highest monthly total of troops killed in combat since June 2008.
United States officials in Baghdad included the Promised Day Brigade among the three Shi'ite militias they said had been funded and armed by Iran and had killed US troops.
Last weekend, in a statement posted on his website, Muqtada said nothing to disassociate himself from the Promised Day Brigade's operations against US forces or its claim of responsibility for killing US troops. Instead, he announced the brigade would have the "mission" of "resisting" US troops if they are not all gone by December 31 - the deadline for withdrawal under the agreement signed by George W Bush in November 2008.
But the ILO has been telling officials at the White House and the Pentagon that, in order to avoid antagonizing Washington, Muqtada had ordered the brigade to limit its attacks to "hard targets" - installations and armored vehicles - to minimize the likelihood of US casualties, according to the senior Iraqi intelligence official.
The ILO has dismissed the statement by the brigade claiming to have killed and wounded US troops as coming from a hardline faction within the Sadrist movement close to Iran. It says this faction was hoping to force Muqtada's hand on the negotiations on a US troop presence.
The ILO official points to Muqtada's actions over the weekend as evidence that he has made significant accommodations to allow the negotiations to go forward.
The Muqtada statement, posted on the same weekend as his exchange with Maliki, said the Promised Day Brigade would be given the mission of resisting US occupation if and when the US troops were not withdrawn.
A Sadrist legislator, Mushriq Naji, made the same point in an interview with Aswat al-Iraq newspaper on July 11. "The Promised Day Brigade is carrying out the missions of resistance now and in the future," he said, "in the event of non-withdrawal of the Americans".
That message appeared to contradict the June 28 statement from the brigade that said that the attacks would continue.
Muqtada's statement also withdrew a threat he had made in April to "restart the activities of the Mahdi Army" if the US didn't withdraw by the end of the year. The reactivation of the Mahdi Army had been regarded as part of an implicit threat to bring down the government over the issue of US troops.
But US officials aren't buying the idea that Muqtada is playing a double game. Asked if anyone involved in Iraq policy believed Muqtada had signaled that he would tacitly allow the negotiations to go ahead, one official said, "I don't think so."
Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, official spokesman for United States Forces-Iraq, vehemently denied in response to an e-mail query from IPS that Muqtada was restraining the Promised Day Brigade in relation to US forces.
"Last month, PDB [Promised Day Brigades] claimed responsibility for 52 attacks against US forces," Buchanan said, adding that claims that the brigade had not caused any casualties to US forces and that Muqtada would not obstruct negotiations on an agreement "carry no credibility in our eyes whatsoever".
Civilian officials working on Iraq take a more nuanced view of Muqtada, but are not yet convinced that he will acquiesce to a US presence beyond 2011. "It's still unclear what Sadr is doing," said one US official who follows the issue closely. "He doesn't seem to have stable preferences on this issue."
The official added that he is "99% sure" that the Promised Day Brigade had caused some casualties among US troops. He concedes, however, that most of those casualties have come from two much smaller Shi'ite militia groups, neither of which is regarded as responsive to Muqtada's direct command.
The US demand that Muqtada give up the Promised Day Brigades entirely is one that he probably could not meet without risking the loss of his Shi'ite political base. If an agreement were reached in time on stationing US troops beyond this year, Muqtada would have to go through at least the motions of attacking US military installations, according to the ILO official.
If tensions between the US military and Muqtada continue to rise, Muqtada may reverse course and drop the covert inside game he is said to have adopted. Ironically, the US inability or unwillingness to play along with a Muqtada double game on a US troop presence could help Iran stymie the US effort to preserve a rapidly dwindling influence in Iraq.