In November 2008, the U.S. and Iraq signed a bilateral security agreement, which set two major deadlines leading up to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq: the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraqi cities by 30 June 2009 and the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by 31 December 2011. (1) Additionally, in February 2009, President Obama announced that all U.S. combat forces would be withdrawn from Iraq by 31 August 2010, leaving several advisory and assistance units and headquarters elements in Iraq and setting the force ceiling at 50,000 for those remaining at the end of August 2010. (2)
As was the case during the deployment of U.S. forces into Iraq in 2003, the majority of U.S. forces will likely exit Iraq through the south, moving equipment to Iraqi and Kuwaiti ports in the northern Arabian Gulf for loading onto ships and subsequent return to U.S. bases or to other theaters of operation. There are three primary threats to the combat forces drawdown in southern Iraq including: Shia militant groups opposed to the presence of U.S. forces; Iranian influence that ranges from helpful to disruptive and deadly to U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); and intra-Shia violence, where Shia political groups compete for power and resources.
This article focuses on Shia militant groups and malign Iranian influence, and also briefly addresses the potential threat of intra-Shia politically motivated violence. Additionally, while the majority of violence in Iraq over the past six years has been concentrated in Baghdad, Anbar Province in western Iraq and in northern Iraq, the environment in southern Iraq described in this article highlights how the complex, multi-faceted nature of the southern region can affect the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces. This article also provides a description of the three major threats in southern Iraq, identifies several unlikely wildcard events which could alter the security situation, and concludes that while violence in the south is quite low when compared to historical trends and compared to the rest of Iraq, there remains several areas where U.S. forces should focus their efforts to ensure violence remains low ahead of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
U.S. forces should focus on five areas including: maintaining active force protection measures during convoys and at U.S. bases; retaining the capability to conduct targeting operations against militant leaders; sustaining an Information Operations (IO) campaign which emphasizes U.S. compliance with the security agreement; supporting Government of Iraq (GoI) reconciliation efforts with militant groups, and countering Iranian influence through continued intelligence collection emphasis and border security improvements along the Iraq-Iran border.
Shia Militant Groups
The three major Shia militant groups in southern Iraq are Muqtada al-Sadr's Promised Day Brigade (PDB), and independent groups Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kata'ib Hizballah (KH).(3) They all share a common opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq and by extension a common goal of having U.S. forces leave Iraq. All three groups use violence against U.S. forces as their intent is to hasten a U.S. withdrawal and to claim credit for forcing the U.S. departure. It is also likely some militants move between groups depending on factors such as availability of funding and weapons, and whether or not their group leaders support reconciliation efforts.
Muqtada al-Sadr's PDB militia is a relatively new organization in name only. Sadr created PDB's predecessor militia group Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), or the Mahdi Army, in July 2003 to oppose the Coalition presence. From 2003 through 2008, JAM employed a …