In October, as part of its ongoing effort to isolate and sanction Iran, the Bush Administration announced sanctions against several Iranian banks, companies and individuals linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its special operations unit, the Quds (Jerusalem) Force, for their “support for terrorism.” The White House launched a worldwide effort to persuade other countries not to do business with the designees, including Iran’s Bank Melli. “Bank Melli provides banking services to the IRGC and the Qods Force,” said the Treasury Department. “Entities owned or controlled by the IRGC or the Qods Force use Bank Melli for a variety of financial services.”

Buried deep in the State and Treasury Department documents compiled in support of the sanctions–unnoticed by the media–is the address of a Bank Melli branch in a country occupied by US troops: “Location: No. 111-27, Alley 929 District, Arasat Street, Baghdad, Iraq.”

That a bank described by the United States as an Iranian facilitator of terrorism operates freely in the heart of Iraq’s capital is ironic, to say the least, given the Bush Administration’s near-declaration of war against Iran’s involvement in Iraq. Citing evidence that Iran supplies arms, money, logistical help and training to Shiite militias and insurgents, hawks in the Administration, including Vice President Cheney, have suggested that US forces in Iraq may strike supply lines, training camps and weapons depots across the Iranian border, even at the risk of igniting all-out war.

Despite its very public saber-rattling against Iran, however, the United States has spent most of the past five years in a de facto alliance with Iran in support of the Shiite-led (and US-installed) regime in Baghdad. The most powerful component of that regime, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and its disciplined Badr Corps militia, is also Iran’s closest Iraqi ally. Taking advantage of the political vacuum created by the US destruction of Saddam Hussein’s government, Tehran has established a vast presence, both overt and covert, in Iraq, with enormous influence among nearly all of its western neighbor’s Shiite and Kurdish parties. “The American military occupation of Iraq has facilitated an Iranian political occupation of Iraq,” says Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

As a result, the Iraq of 2008 is a tale of two paradoxes.

The first paradox, at once startling and ironic, is that Washington’s decision to topple Saddam’s government has put in place a ruling elite that is far closer to Iran than it is to the United States. As a result, the ayatollahs in Tehran have adroitly checkmated (a word derived from the Persian shah mat, “the king is dead”) US efforts to install a compliant, pro-American regime in Baghdad as the anchor of Washington’s interests in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Now a proxy conflict between the United States and Iran is playing out on Iraq’s complex chessboard. Depending on the course that US-Iranian relations take over the rest of Bush’s tenure and the start of the next administration in Washington, Tehran has two options. If US-Iran ties improve, Tehran may try, at least in the short term, to broker a deal to stabilize Iraq, albeit one that fortifies the Shiite-led government in a way that accommodates Iran’s regional interests. Or, if relations with the United States worsen, Iran can use its allies and agents in Iraq to end the relative calm and send the country tumbling back into all-out civil war.

The second paradox is that despite Iran’s enormous influence in Iraq, most Iraqis–even most Iraqi Shiites–are not pro-Iran. On the contrary, underneath the ruling alliance in Baghdad, there is a fierce undercurrent of Arab nationalism in Iraq that opposes both the US occupation and Iran’s support for religious parties in Iraq. In recent months, this nationalism has begun to express itself in many ways, from the national outpouring of support for the country’s victorious soccer team last summer to the potent anger provoked by efforts to privatize Iraq’s oil industry, by the Blackwater security firm’s shooting of civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle and by suggestions in Washington that Iraq ought to be partitioned into three ministates. In addition, many Iraqi Shiites, like Iraqi Sunnis, harbor bitter feelings against their Persian neighbor left over from the bloody 1980-88 war, which left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. “There is such a thing as Iraqi nationalism, and the default position tends to be one of hostility toward Iran,” says Freeman. “Removing the US occupation as the focus of nationalism will almost certainly lead to a renewal of that nationalism’s focus on Iran.”

Meanwhile, as Iran competes with the United States for influence in Iraq, Tehran is hedging its bets beyond ISCI, building up an impressive portfolio of political, economic, religious and military holdings in its western neighbor. There is a steadily increasing trade, including a black market, across the Iran-Iraq border, and the Iranian government and its state-owned entities have made significant investments in and loans to Iraqi businesses and the rebuilding of Shiite holy cities. There are longstanding clerical ties between Qom, Iran, and Najaf, Iraq, and tens of thousands of religious pilgrims–no doubt including more than a few Iranian intelligence officers–cross the border every month. In March Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to make the first state visit by an Iranian leader to Baghdad.

“The Iranians are investing in virtually every faction there is, just to be sure that once the dust settles, whoever is in control of Iraq is beholden to Iran to a certain extent,” says Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S. Adds Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, “Iran is putting money on every number of the roulette wheel.”

Whose Man in Baghdad?

Iran’s influence in Iraq begins with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which changed its name last year) and its armed wing, the paramilitary Badr Corps. Today ISCI operates a well-oiled political and military machine: it is the cornerstone of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government, dominates much of the army and the police, controls the holy city of Najaf and holds the governorships and the provincial councils in most of Iraq’s southern provinces.

Before, during and after the US invasion of Iraq, SCIRI’s ties to Iran were well-known to US officials. But the Bush Administration–relying on the advice of exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress and neocon poster boy Ahmad Chalabi that postinvasion Iraq would be a secular democracy that would welcome US forces–chose to ignore the Iranian connection. Created in 1982 by Iranian intelligence at the start of the Iran-Iraq war, SCIRI was led by two brothers, Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim; the latter is now ISCI’s chief. The construction of SCIRI under the Hakims was overseen by Ali Khamenei, then Iran’s president and now its supreme leader. The Hakims forcibly recruited Iraqi POWs at camps in Iran to create the Badr Corps, which was controlled by Iranian military and intelligence services. It was known as the IRGC’s Ninth Badr Corps.

After the 2003 US invasion, amid the chaos and looting that followed the collapse of Saddam’s regime, SCIRI and Badr forces flooded across the Iranian border into Iraq. “Border control was nonexistent,” says Wayne White, who in 2003 headed the Iraq team at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “The Iranians could just drive across…. They would come in convoys, ten trucks at a time.” Ali Allawi, a postwar Iraqi defense minister and author of The Occupation of Iraq, wrote, “About 10,000 trained and disciplined Badr fighters entered Iraq, either unarmed or armed only with light weapons, and reassembled in various towns and cities as the fighting arm of SCIRI.” (Other estimates involve significantly higher numbers.) Lavishly financed by Iran, SCIRI and Badr installed their leaders within days in ad hoc posts in Baquba, Kut and other key junctions in the south. Wary of Iran, but seeing little alternative to the turban-wearing clerics of SCIRI and Badr, US and British occupation authorities put the party’s officials into top positions. From the early, US-selected Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 onward, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim was named to a succession of key leadership posts, and top SCIRI officials were installed in various ministries, the police and the army. In the Shiite-dominated south SCIRI officials were named to run provincial authorities, cities and towns. They were viewed by the United States and Britain as natural allies in the struggle against remnants of the Baath Party and the burgeoning Sunni resistance–precisely the forces that Iran, too, saw as its deadliest foes.

Virtually en masse, Badr officers were recruited to the fledgling Iraqi police and army that were being assembled by the United States. According to Raed Jarrar, the Iraq consultant for the American Friends Service Committee, Badr officers maintained their same ranks when they were inducted into the Iraqi security forces. A particularly nasty part of Badr’s work in Iraq from 2003 to the present has been the operation of death squads. Often, such units were run directly by Iraq’s Interior Ministry, whose Badr-controlled police were blamed for assassinating hundreds of former government officials, ex-military and intelligence officers, and civilian professionals, according to widespread media reports. “I was told in the summer of 2003 in Tehran that the change in regime in Baghdad had allowed Iranian intelligence to identify every single individual who had worked in the Iran section of the Iraqi intelligence service,” says Mahan Abedin, director of research at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism in London. “They were able to get as much detail as possible about their person, their movement, their connections, their mobile number. All that information was collected.” They were eradicated, Abedin says, in a “hidden war.”

“Right after the fall of Saddam, [the United States] went looking for the Iraqi intelligence operatives whose target was Iran,” says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq specialist. “If you’re Iran, or very pro-Iranian, you’re not going to like those guys, are you? We wanted to use them, and Iran wanted to get rid of them. And there’s only one way to get rid of them.” Anxious not to allow the United States to make common cause with these operatives, Tehran used its muscle to wipe them out.

Evidence of direct Iranian involvement in ISCI-linked death squads is hard to come by. Certainly, ties between ISCI and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are ongoing. As recently as December 2006, two leaders of the secret Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were seized by US forces inside the Baghdad compound of Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, in the home of Hadi al-Ameri, the ISCI official who is the commander of the Badr Corps. And US military leaders in Iraq recognize ISCI’s Iranian connections. “I think we’re all pretty well aware of the potential ties there,” says a senior US military officer in Baghdad. But, he says, as long as the Badr militia isn’t shooting at Americans, the party’s ties to Iran will be tolerated.

The United States has also shown its willingness to tolerate ISCI’s record of horrific abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture and illegal prisons. “The U.S. reportedly has evidence implicating SCIRI members in death squad activity, but has been reluctant to use it,” says a November 2007 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), citing US military sources.

The Internal Shiite War

Especially over the past three years, a great deal of ISCI’s lethality has been directed toward Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc and his powerful militia, the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM). From the suburbs of Baghdad, to Najaf and Karbala, to Diwaniya, Amarah and Basra, ISCI has been engaged in a bloody confrontation with the JAM, its chief rival among Iraq’s Shiite population. And in the Badr versus Sadr fight, the United States has unequivocally supported ISCI. “The real struggle in the long term is between SCIRI and the Sadrists,” says Joost Hiltermann of the ICG. “And the Americans have in fact chosen the SCIRI side in this.” In so doing, they’ve chosen to side with a pro-Iran party against a movement that is, despite some ties to Iran, far more independent-minded than ISCI. Paradoxically, that’s pushed Sadr closer to Iran.

The Sadr-Badr rivalry is intensified by the fact that both Sadr and Hakim are scions of legendary Iraqi clerical families. When the Hakims fled Iraq, taking up residence in Iran during the era of Saddam, the Sadrs stayed in Iraq. Because it was sponsored by Tehran, Hakim’s ISCI is viewed suspiciously by most Iraqis, while Sadr’s less organized movement–built mosque by mosque, underground, before, during and after the US invasion–has much deeper roots in Iraq. Their constituencies are different, too, breaking down clearly along class lines. Hakim represents the urban elite and Shiite Iraq’s business and commercial class, and his party’s leadership has much in common with the merchants, traders and bazaaris who are the backbone of the ruling elite in Iran. Sadr, on the other hand, has the undying loyalty of Iraq’s Shiite underclass and urban poor, and he has gained the support of many former Shiite Baathists and Arab nationalists who felt they had nowhere else to go after the overthrow of Saddam.

Although the US tactical alliance with ISCI has been in place since 2003, the joint US-ISCI campaign against Sadr escalated dramatically only last year, after President Bush announced the US troop surge. In that January 2007 speech, Bush explicitly warned Iran that it was the target. “We will disrupt the attacks on our forces,” he said. “We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran…. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” But when the United States started talking about “Iranian-backed” forces in Iraq, it didn’t mean ISCI; it meant Sadr and the JAM, especially so-called JAM Special Groups, or what the US military started calling “bad JAM.” According to the Pentagon, the JAM, or elements of it, were attacking US forces in Iraq with Iranian-made armor-piercing explosives and training JAM militiamen to use precisely targeted mortars and rockets to attack the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad.

Sadr, a wily nationalist, tried to hold both the United States and Iran at arm’s length in the first years of the occupation, but the past eighteen months of unrelenting American-ISCI military pressure has left him little choice other than to seek help from Iran. Sensing that the surge would lead to an onslaught against his forces, last February Sadr ordered the JAM to stand down, and he himself went into hiding. According to David Satterfield, the State Department’s senior adviser on Iraq, Sadr has spent most of the past fifteen months in Iran. A February 2008 ICG report described a significant shift in Sadr’s rhetoric on Iran, which had been stridently anti-Iranian until recently. “Muqtada al-Sadr used to stick to a nationalist line. Now, one could describe his rhetoric as almost pro-Iranian,” a Sadrist leader told the ICG. “Even the Mahdi Army has shifted its tone. Last year’s anti-Iranian discourse has given way to something quite different.”

Across the south, despite Sadr’s intent to lie low, a Badr-Sadr battle raged. The Badr forces, often in the form of Iraqi army and police units, mercilessly suppressed the JAM. American and Badr forces fought side by side against Sadr’s less well-armed ragtag militias. Dozens of JAM cells were broken up and hundreds of people were killed or arrested. In Baghdad and provincial capitals like Diwaniya–where a series of large-scale raids on the JAM occurred–US forces as often as not found themselves being used by ISCI to hammer Sadr. “When Sadrists are arrested, they claim that pro-ISCI people are behind arrests,” says Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, who has written extensively on the political struggles in Iraq’s south.

“The Badrists are basically using the United States as a tool to weaken the Sadrists,” says Peter Harling of the ICG. “We hear reports across the board of Badrists in neighborhoods denouncing whoever is related to the Sadrist movement to the United States. A number of people, including people who are hostile to the Sadrist movement, say that the Badrists are out in the field, doing the intelligence work and pointing the United States in what they say is the right direction–that is, against Sadrist elements. And the United States is not very discriminating in sorting out its enemies.”

“The United States is being played,” agrees Kenneth Katzman, Middle East specialist for the Congressional Research Service. “The US military is being played by the Hakims in this internecine struggle.”

Tehran Weighs Its Options

Iran is constantly evaluating its options in this intra-Shiite struggle. Although Iran is closest to ISCI, Tehran’s leaders may be worried about the party’s long-term viability. Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim has lung cancer–last year he spent many weeks in Iran for treatment–and his son and likely successor, Amar al-Hakim, is young and inexperienced. In addition, Iran is well aware that many Iraqi Shiites, who fought against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, despise ISCI as traitors. “They’re hated,” says Hiltermann, who has studied ISCI closely. So despite Sadr’s nationalist inclinations and his apparent distaste for the Iranian leadership, Iran has sought to build ties to the upstart cleric.

Iran’s efforts to cultivate ties with Sadr, and vice versa, operate on two levels: first, directly with Sadr and his top lieutenants; and second, by reaching deep into Sadr’s JAM militia. With an estimated 60,000 men under arms, the JAM is not a disciplined fighting force but a loosely organized, franchise-like network of armed gangs in towns and neighborhoods. Sensing an opportunity to take advantage of this lack of discipline, Iran launched a systematic effort to win the allegiance of local and regional JAM commanders, according to a wide range of analysts. Iran’s goal may have been to turn the JAM into a version of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, dependent on Iran for arms and money.

The so-called Special Groups emerged, according to the Pentagon, as a catch-all rubric for Sadrist fighters who, starting about a year ago, emerged as the deadliest foes of US occupation forces. After tens of thousands of former Sunni resistance fighters joined the Anbar Province Sahwa (“Awakening”) militia under the command of Iraqi tribal chiefs–part of a pronounced US tilt toward the Sunnis in Iraq in 2006–the United States began to battle a wave of attacks in Shiite areas south and east of Baghdad by hard-line Shiites who opposed the US-Sunni accord. By mid-2007 these insurgents were responsible for three-fourths of the casualties inflicted on American troops, according to the US military. The Pentagon called the attackers “Iranian-backed JAM Special Groups” and accused them of using highly effective armor-piercing bombs manufactured in Iran called “explosively formed penetrators.”

Nearly all analysts interviewed for this story believe that Iran has supplied at least some of the weapons being used by Shiite insurgents, although the physical evidence presented by the Pentagon was less than overwhelming. “I don’t think we’ve got a lot of intelligence about what Iran is really doing,” says David Mack of the Middle East Institute, who twice served as a diplomat in Iraq during his career. “We see the effects of certain kinds of weapons that arguably were made in Iran.” The Pentagon admits that so far it has failed to intercept any shipments crossing the Iranian border into Iraq. But the military insists that Iran is involved, and it says that US and Iraqi forces have captured numerous fighters trained in Iran and at least one top Hezbollah commander from Lebanon. Some skeptics of the Pentagon’s claims suggest that Iranian weapons that find their way into Iraq are being smuggled by independent or rogue elements of the IRGC Quds Force without Supreme Leader Khamenei’s knowledge, but that seems unlikely. Mahan Abedin calls the idea “ludicrous,” adding, “If the IRGC is doing anything in Iraq, that would be officially sanctioned. When it comes to matters of such importance, there is no scope for behaving outside well-established parameters. Make no mistake about that. The IRGC is a highly disciplined organization. It’s an ideological force, and a lot of thinking and planning has gone into its hierarchy. It is a highly surveilled organization, controlled very tightly.”

Though willing to blame Iran and elements of the JAM, the US command in Iraq is careful not to blame Sadr himself. According to Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the communications division chief of the multinational forces in Iraq, Iraqi agents of Iran tapped small groups of Iraqis, twenty to forty at a time, to be sent across the border into Iran. “They were trained and then sent back in these quote-unquote ‘Special Groups,'” he says. “They were sent back as small cells…. They would wind up a lot of little toy monsters. They sent them across the border and started turning them loose.” Although many of these cells, scattered through Baghdad, Diyala and the south, called themselves followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the precise degree of their loyalty to Sadr’s organization is impossible to measure. The US military, at least, considers them distinct. “What happened was, eventually, they completely separated from Muqtada al-Sadr’s JAM and they are operating as a rogue element outside of JAM and outside of Sadr’s control,” says Smith.

By late summer, Sadr’s movement had suffered great losses and seemed to be in deep trouble. Whether rogue or not, the Special Groups were under heavy attack by a joint US-Iraqi offensive. Clashes with the more disciplined and better-armed Badr Corps were also taking a toll among Sadr’s forces. In late August a climactic battle between JAM and Badr forces in Karbala, Iraq’s second-holiest shrine city, left scores dead, and as many as 500 Sadrists were arrested. Within days, Sadr declared a unilateral six-month cease-fire.

The cease-fire came at an opportune moment for Sadr. In contrast to Badr-linked death squads, which were blamed for precisely targeted killings, at least some of Sadr’s deputies and commanders had been tied to horrific violence against Sunnis in ethnic cleansing campaigns, especially in Baghdad, often behaving more like gangsters than a political army. The cease-fire gave Sadr the opportunity to reign in the most undisciplined elements.

It’s unclear exactly what motivated Sadr to declare the cease-fire, but its effect was electric. Not only did Sadr’s forces lay down their arms but violence linked to the Special Groups fell off dramatically, too. Casualties among Americans, which had reached near zero in Sunni Anbar Province because of the Awakening movement, fell precipitously in the capital and southern Iraq. A few weeks later, in October, Sadr and Hakim signed a shaky peace agreement, one that was reportedly brokered by Iran. “According to [the pan-Arab daily] Al Hayat, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was present when the accord between Sadr and Hakim in October was reached,” says Sam Parker, an Iraq expert at the US Institute of Peace. (By mid-February the agreement had apparently collapsed.)

The fact that both the JAM and the Special Groups simultaneously observed the cease-fire announced by Sadr could mean that the supposedly rogue units in the JAM are not so rogue at all. “It tells me that [Sadr] has more control than we think,” says Wayne White. Another possibility is that, quietly and behind the scenes, Iran used its influence–including a cutoff in the supply of arms and money–to restrain Shiite fighters. “I think there is a robust relationship now between Sadr and the Iranians,” says White. “Both Iran and Sadr read the surge the same way. Thousands…fled south from Baghdad to Shia sanctuaries or to Iran…. They just decamped. Why confront the Americans at peak strength? They can just wait for the American surge forces to leave.” Indeed, an extensive recent report in the Christian Science Monitor suggested that Sadr is using the lull to consolidate his militia. And he has created a special force, the so-called Golden Ones, to enforce JAM discipline.

US-Iran Détente?

By last fall, top US officials had begun cautiously praising Sadrists for their forbearance. The Pentagon, which had spent most of last year blaming “JAM Special Groups,” dropped all references to the JAM and lavished praise on Sadr’s cease-fire. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, lauded Sadr personally for “working to rid his movement of criminal elements” and for making a “pledge of honor” to uphold the cease-fire announced in August. “The Sadr trend stands for service to the people,” said Petraeus. And despite the fact that Sadr won’t meet directly with US officials, a senior US officer in Baghdad told The Nation that the United States is in direct dialogue with leading Sadrists. “We’ve got ways in which we have opportunities to have discussion about overall, well, I don’t want to say strategy, but–intent,” he said.

Even more surprising, perhaps, top US officials also began to praise Iran. Beginning late last summer, according to American officials, Iran began restricting the flow of weapons across the Iraqi border, following a pledge by Supreme Leader Khamenei to Maliki during the Iraqi prime minister’s trip to Tehran. The State Department’s Satterfield said last December, “We have seen such a consistent and sustained diminution in certain kinds of violence by certain kinds of folks that we can’t explain it solely [by internal factors in Iraq]…. We are confident that decisions involving the strategy pursued by the IRGC are made at the most senior levels of the Iranian government.” In February Satterfield tempered his comments a bit, suggesting that Iran might be behind an uptick in rocket and mortar attacks in Basra.

There were other straws in the wind indicating the possibility of US-Iranian détente in Iraq. Ambassador Ryan Crocker announced in Baghdad that he would soon resume his dialogue with Iran’s Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, a top officer in the IRGC who’d helped organize the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. There are rumors of stepped-up clandestine contacts between US and Iranian officials in various locations. And the US intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate, released late last year, eased US pressure on Iran by revealing that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. None other than Ali Khamenei responded by saying, for the first time, that he could envision “having relations with America.”

When The Nation asked US officers in Iraq about Iran’s growing role there, the response was decidedly mild. “Obviously Iran has legitimate economic, political and diplomatic interests in Iraq that they ought to pursue, whether it’s helping to generate power in the south or building up an Iraq here that they’re comfortable with,” said a senior US officer in Baghdad. “But what we’re not going to tolerate is the direct militant-aligned activity that Iran has been responsible for.” He went on: “They are going to be neighbors forever. They share a huge common border. Economic life across that border is pretty significant. And if all that takes place in an open and transparent way, there’s no downside to it.”

Can the United States make a deal with Iran to stabilize Iraq, with both Washington and Tehran ignoring their differences to support Maliki’s government? Possibly. One scenario would have Washington, backed by Saudi Arabia, using its influence among the Sunnis, particularly in the burgeoning Awakening movement, to bring them to the table, while Iran would use its clout among the Shiites to convince Maliki and Hakim to make the concessions necessary to bridge the sectarian divide. That idea lay at the heart of the Iraq Study Group plan, the 2006 advisory panel chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton that Bush dismissed when he adopted the surge. The Baker-Hamilton plan called for negotiations with Iran (and Syria) to help stabilize Iraq.

But enormous obstacles remain.

First, Iran is very unhappy about America’s efforts to build up the 100,000-strong Sunni Awakening militia. In an interview last fall with CNN, Ambassador Kazemi-Qomi explicitly warned against the US policy of arming the Sunnis, accusing Washington of “bringing back to power former killers and murderers.” Instead, Kazemi-Qomi demanded that the United States continue to support the Badr-linked Iraqi security forces. “The United States should arm and help the government, the army and the police.” Soon afterward, a wave of assassinations began to hit the leadership of the Awakening militia and, according to the New York Times, although Al Qaeda in Iraq is to blame for some of the killings, many of the assassins were drawn from the Badr Corps.

Second, recent Al Qaeda-style terrorist activity in and around Baghdad and continuing pressure on the JAM from Badr-linked Iraqi army and police units have prompted Sadr to warn that he might lift the cease-fire when it expires at the end of February. That could end the current relative calm in Iraq, just as surge-linked US brigades begin withdrawing.

Perhaps most important, Iraqi nationalists are already expressing their disdain for the idea of a US-Iran pact in Iraq. Iraqi nationalists–among them secular parties, Baathists, many Sunni parties, the Awakening movement and key Shiite blocs, including the Sadrists, despite their recent tilt toward Iran–are starting to coalesce around a program built on opposition to both the US military occupation and the Iranian political occupation. In addition, they are opposed to Al Qaeda and to separatists, especially the Kurds, who want an independent Kurdish region in the north, and to ISCI, which has called for a quasi-independent Shiite region in the south. If the United States were to begin a rapid drawdown of its forces in Iraq, chances are good that Iraqi nationalism would begin to reassert itself. In the end, many analysts say, the Iraqis will limit Iran’s influence in Iraq–but only if the United States gets out of the way.