February 14, 2007

More Confirmation On Mahdi Flight

While the debate rages over the location of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Guardian (UK) reports that the upper command structure of the Mahdi Army has also bugged out to Iran. A senior official in the Iraqi government tells Michael Howard that they have left Iraq to "regroup":

Senior commanders of the Mahdi army, the militia loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have been spirited away to Iran to avoid being targeted in the new security push in Baghdad, a high-level Iraqi official told the Guardian yesterday.

On the day the Iraqi government formally launched its crackdown on insurgents and amid disputed claims about the whereabouts of Mr Sadr, the official said the Mahdi army leadership had withdrawn across the border into Iran to regroup and retrain.

"Over the last three weeks, they [Iran] have taken away from Baghdad the first and second-tier military leaders of the Mahdi army," he said. The aim of the Iranians was to "prevent the dismantling of the infrastructure of the Shia militias" in the Iraqi capital - one of the chief aims of the US-backed security drive.

"The strategy is to lie low until the storm passes, and then let them return and fill the vacuum," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Tehran authorities were "playing a waiting game" until the commanders could return to Baghdad and resume their activities. "All indications are that Moqtada is in Iran, but that is not really the point," he added.

As some have noted, this calls into question the cooperation promised by the Maliki government. If they warned off Sadr and the senior Mahdis, then he has not done anything except get the Shi'ites out of the way while the Iraqis and Americans beat up the Sunnis. However, this seems like a stretch. Thanks to a long public debate here in the US, Sadr didn't need Maliki to warn him of the new surge strategy. He also knew that Maliki would have to cooperate or face a crippling withdrawal of American support. Maliki didn't have to draw him any pictures.

That makes this "regroup" effort significant evidence of a retreat. The Mahdis could well collect themselves in Teheran and plan for their eventual return. However, the Mahdis do not lead a popular movement, but instead have acted as a gang of thugs, enforcing their will on the streets among frightened residents who mostly wanted them to go away. Once gone, and with the US holding the neighborhoods they once terrorized, they will have to fight their way back into their old territory.

This, by the way, is why a "phased withdrawal over an event horizon" is just a fancy way of saying "retreat". The Mahdis will have to pay for the same territory twice, and they will have the disadvantage of trying to dislodge a vastly superior force already in place.

And again, the Mahdi convention in Teheran shows that the Iranians have been supporting Sadr and his terrorists all along. If the Iranian government didn't have any connection to the Mahdis, they would never have allowed them to convene in their capital. Sadr has revealed the Mahdis as nothing more than an Iraqi Hezbollah, only with more incompetent management.

Nothing shows the power of an American military force than the retreat of its enemies, especially once they understand that the gloves have come off. The Mahdis didn't choose to regroup in Basra or Najaf -- they went to Iran. That speaks volumes about the courage of the Mahdi "army" and the opportunity to end their terrorist grip on Iraq's capital.


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