October 25, 2007; Page A12
BAGHDAD -- While fighting between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites has begun to ebb, fighting within the sects has increased, as rival groups jockey for power, influence and money.
Proponents, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D., Del.), say they believe that creating ministates populated exclusively by Shiites, Sunnis or Kurds offers the best chance of gradually pacifying Iraq. Late last month, the Senate overwhelmingly endorsed a nonbinding partition plan.
But the internecine strife suggests that dividing the country into three autonomous regions might present new problems, as armed groups within each sectarian community pursue control over their newly created ministates.
"People think that all of the violence in Iraq is Sunni on Shia or Shia on Sunni, but it's not," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands the army's Third Infantry Division, in an interview in Iraq last month. "It's guys from the same communities fighting each other for power, money and influence."
Gen. Lynch likens the strife to the fights among organized-crime families. "I tell my guys, the best way they can prepare before they come out here is to watch 'The Sopranos,'" he said, referring to the popular U.S. television mob drama.
U.S. commanders also stress that sectarian violence continues in areas such as in the ethnically mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad and other major cities.
Iraq's overall level of bloodshed has been steadily declining, in part because of the U.S. "surge" policy of sending more U.S. troops into the country. The number of Americans killed in Iraq fell from 84 in August to 63 in September and, according to the Iraqi government, Iraqi civilian fatalities fell by nearly half. Twenty-nine U.S. soldiers had been killed in October, as of yesterday.
Another reason for the drop, U.S. commanders suggested, stems from the evolving nature of the fighting here. They said the conflict was beginning to shift from open warfare between Shiite and Sunni militias -- which often targeted civilians from the other sect -- to battles within the communities themselves. That has resulted in fewer casualties.
Several U.S. commanders based in different parts of Iraq said they saw the internecine violence as a sign that Iraq's major sects were preparing for when, in the near future, they are expected to work out a viable power-sharing arrangement for the country.
The commanders said rival players within each sect were jockeying now to ensure that they are seen as spokesmen for their community in any future negotiations.
"These internal struggles are all about securing your position relative to the other guys," Lt. Col. David Oclander, executive officer of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said last month.
The intrasectarian violence has been particularly acute in Shiite areas of Baghdad and oil-rich southern Iraq, where cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army and Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council leader Abdul-Aziz al Hakim's Badr Corps have been battling over oil, smuggling routes and patronage jobs.
"For a guy like Sadr, the goal is to maneuver and maneuver so that when things begin to shake themselves out, he can say, 'I speak for the Shia,'" said Col. Oclander.
In the past two months, the Shiite governors of Muthanna and Qadariyah provinces, both loyal to Mr. Hakim, were assassinated in attacks attributed to fighters loyal to Mr. Sadr. Gun battles between the two militias left more than 50 dead during a Shiite pilgrimage in Karbala.
Messrs. Sadr and Hakim issued a joint declaration in early October calling for a cease-fire between their groups. But Mr. Sadr has struggled to control his militia in the past, and several U.S. commanders said they were unsure whether the agreement would endure.
The struggle between the competing Shiite factions is posing policy dilemmas for U.S. commanders. They are trying to decide whether to back Mr. Hakim's fighters, who are seen as being relatively more friendly to U.S. interests in the country, or whether it would be too dangerous to intervene.
In Sunni areas, the U.S. is already involved, funneling money and other supplies to Sunni tribal militias that have been battling al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni religious militants. Commanders said these alliances have contributed to a steep decline in violence in once-restive parts of Iraq, such as Anbar Province.
U.S. commanders hope to build similar relationships with Shiite tribal leaders. U.S. officers said growing numbers of Shiite sheiks, alarmed by Mr. Sadr's radicalism and the continuing intra-Shiite bloodshed, are beginning to share intelligence tips and discuss more formal alliances with the U.S forces.
Many U.S. commanders remain divided over whether to intervene directly in the infighting between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps, given the possibility that such a move could inflame large portions of Iraq's Shiite majority.
In an interview last month, Lt. Col. Peter Andrysiak, then-deputy commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, said the U.S. "can and should" support the Badr Corps in its fight with the Mahdi Army. He argued that Mr. Hakim's militia is broadly supportive of the Iraqi government while Mr. Sadr's forces aren't.
"Badr is reconcilable, and we can win them over. JAM is not," he said, using the military's acronym for the Arabic name of Mr. Sadr's forces, the Jaish al-Mahdi.
Other senior officers disagreed. "It's a dangerous thought process, once you start down that path," Gen. Lynch said.