BAGHDAD — Despite President Bush's recent insistence that al Qaida in Iraq is the principal cause of this country's violence, senior American military officers here say Shiite Muslim militias are a bigger problem, and one that will persist even if al Qaida is defeated.
"The longer-term threat to Iraq is potentially the Shiite militias," one senior military officer said, echoing concerns that other American officials raised in recent interviews with McClatchy Newspapers.
Military officers hail the fact that violence is down as evidence that their campaign against al Qaida in Iraq is succeeding. But there's no sign of reconciliation between Sunni Muslims and Shiites, the rationale the Bush administration cites for increasing the number of U.S. troops in the country.
The Shiite Mahdi Army militia continues to drive Sunni residents from neighborhoods in Baghdad, a development that one American officer called "disappointing." Shiite politicians show little sympathy for the expelled Sunnis or interest in stopping the expulsions. In interviews, they argued that the drive against Sunnis is a justified response to Sunni campaigns to drive Shiites from their neighborhoods, a position that American military officers reject.
American officials say they're hopeful about the recent decision by some Sunni insurgent groups to cooperate with U.S. troops to defeat al Qaida in Iraq. But some of America's new Sunni allies warn that once they've disposed of the religious extremists in their midst, they'll return to battling rival Shiites — and American occupiers.
Meanwhile, Sunni politicians are boycotting the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and threatening to withdraw permanently if 12 demands aren't met, including an end to Shiite militias' infiltration of Iraqi security forces.
More alarming, American officers say that battles for supremacy among armed Shiite groups will be the next challenge, and that U.S. forces are likely to be drawn into those disputes. Already, the U.S. is taking sides, sending attack aircraft to back Iraqi security forces against radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Combating the influence of Shiite militias had long been a cornerstone of American policy in Iraq. But that position changed last January, when President Bush, facing rising congressional and public opposition to the war in Iraq, pronounced al Qaida the No. 1 cause of violence there and said he was dispatching more than 20,000 additional troops to confront the problem.
In the months since, as congressional criticism grew, Bush has gone even further, calling al Qaida in Iraq "the same people" responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, though al Qaida in Iraq didn't form until after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has at best only hazy ties to the al Qaida of Osama bin Laden.
Few officials on the front lines, moreover, think that defeating the terrorist organization would end Iraq's troubles. They paint a far more complex vision of the violence than is evident in Washington-based pronouncements about al Qaida's involvement.
In an interview with McClatchy, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top American military commander in Iraq, said the military offensive had decimated al Qaida in Iraq's leadership, not only in Baghdad but also in other key locations such as Diyala province. He cited a decline in massive car-bombings in the capital as one sign that al Qaida has been unable to find experienced operatives to replace leaders who've been killed or detained in the current U.S.-led offensive.
But Petraeus acknowledged that he'd just returned from a meeting with prominent Shiite politicians to discuss Shiite militias' infiltration of the security forces and their role in death squads that have been targeting Sunnis.
Other U.S. military officers, who agreed to speak only if they weren't named because of the sensitive nature of the subject, point out that Shiite militias regularly battle one another in largely Shiite southern Iraq, where there's never been much of an al Qaida presence.
Adding to concerns is a realization among American officials that they don't know the Mahdi Army's intentions in Baghdad. Will Sadr's group be satisfied with driving Sunnis into traditionally Sunni districts or will it seek to purge those districts too?
"A lot of what goes on in the wee hours of the morning, whether it's Shiite death squads or Sunnis in al Qaida in Iraq, we don't know about," a senior military official said. "Single-sect neighborhoods tend to be more stable. It may not be ethical and moral the way they're created, but the results are undeniable."
Although they're Maliki's most powerful supporters, American officials aren't certain about the prime minister's intentions, either. One officer said his primary question remained whether Maliki wanted an Iraqi society in which members of all sects participated equally.
While Maliki has promised to rein in militias, prominent members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite alliance that dominates Iraq's parliament, have expressed little outrage that Shiite militias are targeting Sunnis. They say the attacks are merely payback for years of oppression by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led dictatorship and for Sunni insurgent car bombs in predominately Shiite areas.
"There are more Shiites in camps (for displaced persons) than Sunnis," said Sheik Homam Hammoudi, the head of Iraq's constitutional reform committee and a prominent member of the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, often referred to as Iraq's largest political party.
The two largest militias, Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, are tied to prominent Iraqi families whose rivalries date back generations. Both militias have infiltrated the security forces.
Badr, which has never openly battled American forces, generally gets credit for being the more astute player of the two. "The Badr corps understood the game from the beginning and incorporated itself into the security forces," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said.
A senior U.S. military official described American support for Badr — an Iranian-funded organization that many think still conducts targeted assassinations — as the only option since many of its members have been absorbed into the Iraqi security forces.
"Badr has decided to join the government, and they gave up their weapons and became part of the state," the senior military official said. "If we're not going to support al Qaida in Iraq and not going to support Jaysh al Mahdi (the Mahdi Army) and we can't support the security forces, then why are we here?"
Sadr, who also receives aid from Iran, is popular among Iraq's Shiite poor and controls the largest Shiite bloc in parliament. The Mahdi Army attacked U.S. forces in 2004 and was almost eradicated in August of that year after U.S. troops besieged the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. Sadr since has urged his followers not to attack American forces, though the head of his parliament bloc said attacks could still be justified.
"This does not mean that if there is bad conduct by Americans that they can't attack Americans," said Nassar al Rubaie, the head of Sadr's bloc in parliament. "Avenging dignity is part of the Arab identity. As long as Americans (treat us with disrespect) we will attack."
While Sunni groups that once opposed the American presence here are fighting alongside U.S. forces to eradicate al Qaida in Iraq, many Sunnis fear that once the extremist Islamic group is gone, they'll be sitting ducks for Shiite militias.
In the town of Khalis in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, as U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces pursue al Qaida in Iraq, the Mahdi Army has taken over. One woman from Diyala related the story of her extended family members. They opened their homes to a Sunni family on the run from the Mahdi Army, hiding them until they could flee the next day. The Mahdi Army found out and threatened the head of the family and his sons. Now the family has fled, and its members are hiding throughout the country.
"We are worried about a power vacuum," said Salim Abdullah, spokesman for the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front. "We have cases now . . . where people started to believe that al Qaida was what provided their security. We struck al Qaida in one place, and the militias became active. . . . We asked the army not to let militia activity increase al Qaida's popularity among people."
(McClatchy Newspapers Special Correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)