February 21, 2007

Whither Sadr City?

The US has a decision ahead of then with the new surge strategy that could either help drive out the Shi'ite insurgents or lose them the entire city of Baghdad. The joint Iraqi-American forces have cleared and held Shi'ite enclaves around Sadr City, but have not yet entered that power base of the Mahdi Army. They must determine whether and when to do so, and the credibility of the US forces and the Iraqi government depends on their next moves:

U.S. and Iraqi forces have moved aggressively in the last week to combat Sunni Arab insurgents in neighborhoods across the capital and to establish a stronger presence in religiously mixed districts long plagued by sectarian violence.

But as the new security crackdown enters a second week, they face their most sensitive challenge: whether, when and how to move into the Shiite-dominated slum of Sadr City, stronghold of the Al Mahdi militia.

Political pressure has mounted to crack down on the Baghdad neighborhood that harbors the militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr. Sunni Arabs, who make up the backbone of the insurgency, have long accused Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki of allowing Sadr City to remain a haven for the militia to keep the support of Sadr's followers. ...

U.S. troops took heavy casualties when they tried to storm Sadr City in the spring and summer of 2004. For the Americans, the grueling street fights with black-clad teens holding AK-47s while running down the streets represented a nadir few want to relive.

Rather than crush the Al Mahdi, the U.S. wound up bolstering Sadr's street credibility and undermining the popularity of then-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who was pro-American.

Part of the reason that the 2004 effort backfired was because of the lack of commitment by the interim Iraqi government to see the operation through to its conclusion. Allawi, dependent on the same Shi'ite factions that support Nouri al-Maliki today, lost his nerve as that support collapsed. The US have a stronger force now than then, and better intelligence, while the Mahdi leadership has mostly fled the enclave for Iran. Maliki has also given the green light for these operations after pressure from the White House convinced him that the rules of engagement had to change.

It will be politically impossible to bypass Sadr City and the Mahdis, both here and in Iraq. The Sunnis will never accept the government if it does not extend the same protection and the same enforcement to both Sunni and Shi'ite communities. Only when the government acts Iraqi and not Shi'ite will the Sunnis feel safe enough to engage and participate in the government, especially around Baghdad. The US will see any avoidance of the Mahdis as a failure to address one of the more destabilizing elements in Iraq and question even further the use of additional troops in Baghdad. The surge, to be seen as successful, has to neuter Sadr more effectively than previous attempts.

American evaluations of the Mahdis have changed since the surge started. Prior to the commitment to the new strategy, analysts warned about a push into Sadr City. In a paper that two of the surge's architects wrote for the American Enterprise Institute in early January, General Jack Keane and Frederick Kagan warned that such a push would force a confrontation with the Mahdis and unify the splintered Shi'ite political factions against the US. Now, however, Kagan says the initial reaction to the surge shows that he and Keane overestimated the strength and staying power of the Mahdis, and perhaps underestimated Moqtada al-Sadr's political adroitness.

In order for the Iraqi government and the US surge to retain credibility as a liberating and non-sectarian force, they both have to address the Shi'ite militias in the same manner as the Sunni insurgencies. The US has to enter Sadr City to ensure an end to militia operations there and to help secure the growing economic strength in its neighborhoods. If the US succeeds in Sadr City, they can win all of Baghdad and perhaps end the worst of the sectarian violence in a shorter period than first believed.

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Whither Sadr City? Ed Morrissey The US has a decision ahead of then with the new surge strategy that could either help drive out the Shi'ite insurgents or lose them the entire city of Baghdad. The joint Iraqi-American forces have [Read More]