Jonathan Steele

Iraq's U.S. overlords at last seem to have grasped the danger posed by their friends' militias. But it may be too late.

MUCH INK, as well as indignation, is being spent on whether Iraq is on the verge of, in the midst of, or nowhere near civil war. Wherever you stand in this largely semantic debate, the one certainty is that the seedbed for the country's self-destruction is Iraq's plethora of militias. In the apt phrase of Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad, they are the "infrastructure of civil war."

He is not the first U.S. overlord in Iraq to spot the danger. Shortly before the formal transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis, America's then top official, Paul Bremer, ordered all militias to disband. Some members could join the new army. Others would have to look for civilian work.

His decree was not enforced and now, two years later, this failure has come back to haunt Iraq. "More Iraqis are dying from militia violence than from the terrorists," Mr. Khalilzad said recently. "The militias need to be under control."

His blunt comment came in the wake of more than 1,000 abductions and murders in a single month, most of them blamed on Shia militias. Terrified residents of Baghdad's mainly Sunni areas talk of cars roaring up after dark, uninhibited by the police in spite of the curfew. They enter homes and seize people, whose bodies turn up later, often garrotted or marked with holes from electric drills evidence of torture before assassination.

Extraordinary turnaround

Mr. Khalilzad's denunciation of the militias was an extraordinary turnaround, given that the focus of U.S. military activity since the fall of Saddam Hussein has been the battle against foreign jihadis and a nationalist Sunni-led insurgency. Suddenly, the U.S. faces a greater "enemy within" militias manned by the Shia community, once seen by the U.S. as allies, and run by government ministers.

The new line, if it sticks, marks an end to previous ambiguity. Under Mr. Bremer there was a tendency to see some militias as good, that is on the U.S. side, such as the peshmerga fighters that belong to the two large Kurdish parties, and others as bad, such as the Mahdi army of the Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes the occupation.

A third militia, the Badr organisation, was also tolerated. It is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shia political party which supported the invasion and is Washington's main interlocutor in the Shia coalition.

American officials paid lip service to the need to disband the militias, but never showed any sense of urgency. As a Pentagon report to Congress put it last year: "The realities of Iraq's political and security landscape work against completing the transition and reintegration of all Iraq's militias in the short term."

Iraqi leaders praised the militias, claiming they were subordinate to the Defence and Interior Ministries. The Badr organisation has even been put in charge of defending the home of the Shias' revered religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The flaw in the picture was that while the Kurds and Shias had two militias each, the Sunnis had none. Sunni chiefs could rustle up a few gunmen from extended family ranks, when necessary, as had been done for centuries, but there was nothing on the scale of Badr, the Mahdi, or the peshmerga. Many Sunnis welcomed the anti-occupation insurgents as a kind of surrogate militia. Sunni anger increased with evidence of secret prisons, run by the Interior Ministry, where hundreds of men and boys, mainly Sunnis, were tortured, and of "death squads" operating against Sunnis. In response, Baghdad's Sunni neighbourhoods have started to form vigilante groups to defend their turf.

American officials now view the militias differently. Phasing them out by integrating their members into the official forces of law and order is seen as risky, unless the leadership changes. In February this year the new Pentagon line was that integration could result in security forces that "may be more loyal to their political support organisation than to the central Iraqi government," according to a new study.

The encouraging signs are that Iraqi leaders are denouncing sectarian violence. Provocations such as last week's suicide attack on a Shia mosque in Baghdad appear to be the work of "outsiders." Iraq has no history of Balkan-style pogroms where neighbour turns against neighbour, burning homes and shops. But it could develop now. The rampaging by Shia militias and the rise of defensive Sunni vigilantes have launched a low-intensity ethnic cleansing. Up to 30,000 people have left their homes in the last few weeks.

The crucial question is whether the militias can be rolled back at this late stage. Having allowed them to defy their initial banning orders, as well as Iraq's new constitution, which outlawed them, can the U.S. persuade or force its Iraqi allies to disband them? Confronting the Sunni insurgency means, in crude terms, confronting an enemy. Confronting the biggest militias, Badr and the Kurdish peshmerga, means the U.S. must confront its friends.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006