November 13, 2007

Can We Afford To Engage Sadr? Can We Afford Not To?

The sharp drop in violence around Baghdad has shown the success of General David Petraeus' aggressive new tactics in counterinsurgency. With the militias retreating, most of Baghdad has begun returning to normalcy, with former refugees returning to their homes. It has also created an opening for engagement between Mahdi Army elements and Petraeus' command, according to Fox News:

Top U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus has met with representatives of Muqtada al-Sadr, once one of the top enemies fueling the insurgency against the elected Iraqi government, FOX News has confirmed.

The general has not met personally with al-Sadr, the military said, but the meetings come as the Pentagon is softening its approach to the firebrand Shiite leader who recently eased his hard-line stance with a ceasefire call last August.

Al-Sadr's aides have been quietly working with U.S. military officials to discuss security operations. ...

First reported over the weekend in Newsweek, U.S. commanders said the pullback of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has been a major factor in the decrease in Baghdad violence. They also said U.S. forces and Sadr's forces now have a common enemy: so-called "special groups" that once were aligned with Sadr but have splintered from the main organization.

Those groups, Newsweek said, are allegedly funded through Iran, and al-Sadr has formed a new unit to go after the special groups -- which are ignoring the ceasefire.

This sounds somewhat ... suspicious. When the surge began, Sadr fled to to Iran for shelter and support. It apparently damaged his credibility, and rogue elements in the Mahdi Army splintered his forces. How exactly did Sadr wind up opposing Iran?

Apart from Sadr himself, this mirrors the entropy seen among Sunni insurgents and terrorists in western Iraq. Petraeus engaged with Sunni tribal leaders who had had enough of the brutality of their former al-Qaeda in Iraq partners, a move which eventually help split the native Sunni insurgencies from AQI as well. Even to this day, the former rebels continue to battle AQI remnants in the farther reaches of western Iraq, chasing what's left of them back into Syria.

Shi'ites have apparently undergone a similar transformation. The splinter groups of the Mahdi Army wound up controlling neighborhoods not by popular support but through protection rackets used by the Mafia for decades here in the US. They may not have been quite as brutal as AQI, but once the Sunni terrorists stopped attacking the Shi'ites, the latter had little use for the Mahdis. Sadr's cease-fire intended to bring these groups back under more disciplined command -- but apparently has not succeeded.

The question for the US and for Nouri al-Maliki is twofold: whether Sadr has really renounced Iranian support and infiltration, and whether he can be trusted to stick to that decision if he has. Sadr has outplayed all parties just enough to remain upright and breathing, and this could be his latest dodge. However, if he has delivered on the drop in violence, he may have made himself somewhat more valuable alive than dead. Petraeus so far has shown himself clever enough to know the difference.


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