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January 18, 2007
Mahdi Army Leaders Arrested

Over the last few weeks, the Iraqi government has quietly rounded up some of the senior leadership of the Mahdi Army in preparation for the tactical shift by the US military. The arrests give hope that the Iraqi government may actually use this opportunity to separate itself from the radical Shi'ites that have influenced its operations, including Moqtada al-Sadr:

Facing intense pressure from the Bush administration to show progress in securing Iraq, senior Iraqi officials announced Wednesday that they had moved against the country’s most powerful Shiite militia, arresting several dozen senior members in the past few weeks.

It was the first time the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had claimed significant action against the militia, the Mahdi Army, one of the most intractable problems facing his administration. The militia’s leader, the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, helped put Mr. Maliki in power, but pressure to crack down on the group has mounted as its killings in the capital have driven a wedge into efforts to keep the country together.

Although the announcement seemed timed to deflect growing scrutiny by an American administration that has grown increasingly frustrated with Mr. Maliki, American officers here offered some support for the government’s claims, saying that at least half a dozen senior militia leaders had been taken into custody in recent weeks.

In perhaps the most surprising development, the Americans said, none of the members had been prematurely released, a chronic problem as this government has frequently shielded Shiite fighters.

“There was definitely a change in attitudes,” in the past three to four weeks, a senior American military officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Many of the critics of Bush's surge have argued, not unreasonably, that the new strategy relied too heavily on Nouri al-Maliki's government to show a tenacity that they had never displayed before. Maliki's ties to Sadr made this reliance seem a bit too trusting, and people wondered whether Maliki could survive after turning on Sadr -- literally as well as politically.

The change has had an effect on the streets of Baghdad. Where the militias operated openly as late as October, most of the militia members have faded out of sight. Checkpoints run by the Mahdis have disappeared, and weapons no longer get flashed on the street. The luckier ones now try to get passports to get out of Baghdad and Iraq altogether, and the poorer fighters have worked to stay out of the way. Most impressively, all of this has happened while hundreds of Mahdis sit in jails; normally, that would start street fighting and massive protests, but the Mahdis have suddenly discovered discretion.

One of the motivating factors is money. The Mahdis found a good living in Iranian subsidies and petty protection rackets. They want to keep what they already have, and they know that a stand-up fight against the US military would end all of that. "Italian shoes" was the explanation of one Iraqi to New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise. This underscores the need to follow the clear-and-hold with jobs for unemployed and bored Iraqis who are at higher risk to fall into the insurgencies. The fanatics probably can't be swayed, but their starving recruits who want food and money would probably rather earn it than steal it, and the US needs to have those resources at the ready.

It seems that Bush may have finally found the proper motivation for Maliki to put an end to the Shi'ite death squads. Now we have to help the Iraqi government find the incentives to get the Iraqis to work on rebuilding their nation.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 18, 2007 4:49 AM

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» More From Iraq: Civil War or from Church and State
In Michelle's appearance on "Fox & Friends," she conveys her newfound hope for victory. Captain Ed shares her newfound optimism and points to this NYT report on the arrest of more than 400 Mahdi army members since October, among them several dozen le... [Read More]

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Mahdi Army Leaders Arrested Ed Morrissey Over the last few weeks, the Iraqi government has quietly rounded up some of the senior leadership of the Mahdi Army in preparation for the tactical shift by the US military. The arrests give [Read More]

Tracked on January 18, 2007 11:34 AM

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Tracked on January 18, 2007 12:14 PM


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