Shia leaders fear US favours Sunni alliance

Click to follow

The growing differences between the US and the Iraqi government are rooted in the suspicion among leaders of the Shia community that the US would like to ally itself more closely with the Sunni Arabs, who have hitherto supported the insurgents.

In an unprecedented show of independence by an Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki this week successfully demanded that the US abandon its siege of the great Shia bastion of Sadr City in east Baghdad. Its 2.5 million people celebrated the withdrawal of US checkpoints as an important political victory.

Outside Baghdad, Shia leaders claim that US helicopter gunships have repeatedly opened fire on the Mehdi Army, the Shia militia that supports the radical nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mehdi Army has grown in strength as sectarian warfare between Sunni and Shia escalated after the attack on the Shia shrine in Samarra, in February of this year.

The US justifies its attacks on the Mehdi Army by accusing it of running death squads that kill Sunni. This is undoubtedly true, but the Mehdi Army also opposes the coalition's presence in Iraq. The Badr Organisation, the other large Shia militia, which also runs death squads, is seldom targeted by US forces. The differences between Mr Maliki and US representatives in Baghdad show that while Mr Maliki cannot survive without American support, they cannot do without him. Ironically, the US ambassador Zilmay Khalilzad spent months trying to get rid of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Mr Maliki's predecessor.

The US has long been trying to conciliate the Sunni community, but despite talks with insurgent leaders in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the US has yet to make any headway in negotiations to end the fighting. The danger for the US is that it may alienate the 60 per cent of the Iraqi population who are Shia without reaching an agreement with the 20 per cent who are Sunni Arabs.

While this year has seen a massive escalation of sectarian fighting, there has also been an increase in the number and effectiveness of attacks on US troops. Between 28 September and 31 October this year, US forces suffered 963 dead and wounded compared to 353 dead and wounded in January. The number of US soldiers killed make up about 13 per cent of casualties.

One reason US casualties have increased is that more soldiers were deployed in Baghdad in October in an attempt to gain control of the city.