BAGHDAD — Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were critical of Iran when they testified Tuesday before the Senate, barely giving credit for an Iranian-brokered cease-fire that curbed the killing after a week of Shiite-on-Shiite bloodshed in southern Iraq and Baghdad.
As they spoke, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr threatened to unleash his Mahdi Army militia against U.S. and Iraqi forces. Once again, it was Iran that stepped into the political vacuum and urged a halt to militia attacks into the heavily fortified Green Zone, where U.S. and Iraqi officials, including Petraeus and Crocker, have their offices.
The Iranian foreign ministry called for "restraint and prudence of various Iraqi groups," an implicit rebuke of Sadr, who is living and studying in Iran.
The violence began two weeks ago when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki launched an ill-prepared offensive against militias in the southern port city of Basra. It ebbed after a delegation of the Iraqi governing parties traveled to Iran for talks with a top commander of the Qods force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
This week, it transformed into a conflict largely between the Mahdi Army and U.S. forces. Twelve U.S. troops were killed since Sunday, at least eight of them in the capital, several of them from rocket and mortar attacks into the Green Zone.
Tuesday was the last day of Maliki's ultimatum for militias, mainly the Mahdi Army, to turn in weapons for cash or face a battle. Far from disarming itself and handing its weapons to forces dominated by Shiites in Maliki's Dawa party, Sadr threatened to end the ceasefire he declared in August.
"If it is required to lift the freeze (cease-fire) in order to carry out our goals, objectives, doctrines and religious principles and patriotism, we will do that later and in a separate statement," he said in a statement read by his aide, Salah al Obaidi.
Sadr also postponed his planned million-man march in Baghdad to protest the U.S. occupation on the five-year anniversary of the fall of the capital. The march was expected to bring more violence.
Petraeus acknowledged, though almost in passing, that the clash between the Iraqi government and militias loyal to Sadr and other Shiite leaders — known as "Special Groups" — is one of the biggest threats to Iraqi stability.
"Unchecked, the Special Groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," he said.
Although he was speaking in the context of the threat Iran posed through its support of militia groups, he did not mention that Iran also backs the Shiite-led government and that the government sanctions a variety of militias.
Nearly every party has its own militia, including Maliki's rival the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose forces were largely absorbed into the ranks of the Iraqi Security Forces but remain loyal to the party. The Kurdish parties also have the peshmerga.
Besides playing down Iran's sometimes positive role in the Iraqi dynamics, Petraeus and Crocker seemed to overplay the political progress in Iraq during the period when "surged" U.S. forces and a new U.S. counter-insurgency strategy had contributed to a drop in overall violence.
One act of progress, according to Crocker, was the passage of a provincial powers law, passed days before Maliki's Basra offensive. But that law, calling for provincial elections in October, may have been a catalyst that led to the offensive.
Many Sadr loyalists viewed the offensive as an attempt by Maliki's Dawa party and the Shiite rivals of the Sadr movement to undercut the much more popular Shiite movement prior to elections in October.