Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is the Mahdi Army about to re-emerge in Iraq?

The WaPo reports that Muqtada al-Sadr has offered the Maliki government the use of his militia, the Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army), to improve security.  This comes, of course, in the wake of a recent string of bombings throughout much of Iraq, but during which the teeming, impoverished Sadr City area of Baghdad - Muqtada's largest bastion of political (and, no doubt, military) support - was hit very hard (56 killed), only a few days ago.

This could be a crucial time in Iraq's hoped-for recovery, with US troops on the way out yet the Iraqi government in turmoil, its credibility being shredded by these attacks (most of them by Sunni extremists, usually identified with al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia) and by its current state of limbo while votes in Baghdad are recounted and the main post-election contenders apparently working furiously to build coalitions and stake their claim as the rightful leaders of Iraq's next government.  There is absolutely no love lost between the two biggies: Nuri al-Maliki and his State of Law party, and Ayad Allawi's Iraqiyya, behind which perhaps a majority of Iraq's Sunnis (who have been feeling no love from the Iraqi government ever since Saddam and his Baath party were kicked out) have now lined up.

One of Muqtada's spokesmen asserts that "This is not an invitation to the Mehdi Army to take up arms."  But one has to believe that, after a couple of years of having them stand down (which, by the way, according to most experts is one of the reasons for the decreased sectarian violence after 2007 - a result that led the neocons to proclaim a US "victory" in Iraq), Muqtada is now opening the door for the Mahdi army to do just that. 

Unfortunately (for Iraq's future), one can hardly blame him.

  • Although it has made some progress in its effectiveness (notably reflected in its recent killing or capture of some al-Qaeda higher-ups), the Iraqi security forces under Maliki's control have been unable to prevent a now quite long series of horrific bombings, some of them in the heart of the capital.  When people feel that the government can't protect them, they tend to resort to their own devices.  (Hey, ask the Tea Party folks about that.)
  • It has become increasingly clear that Maliki sees those security forces as instruments to enforce his own, pro-Shii political agenda.  But pro-Shii here does not include the interests of Muqtada, a Shii "cleric," and scion of a revered lineage of Shii religious leaders, who since 2008 has despised Maliki (an erstwhile ally) for using those forces to expel the Mahdi Army from Basra via the so-called "Charge of the Knights" operation.  Muqtada does NOT want to see Maliki achieve another term as prime minister.  Maliki is NOT going to divert huge attention to protecting Muqtada's largest enclave of support, even if its people are Shii.  Ergo . . .
  • The denizens of Sadr City - who include thousands of Mahdi Army members - are likely arming themselves at this very moment.  And why not?  The government has not protected them; its current leader hasn't all that much interest in protecting them; and now the man to whom they profess their deepest allegiance - Muqtada al-Sadr - is more or less saying that if the government can't protect them, my militia stand ready to "help."
Implications for the US?  Iraq is tensing up; Iraqis can't rely on their government; yet the US insists that the withdrawal is proceeding - and will continue to proceed - on schedule.  But by no means has the US been able to "git 'er done" in Iraq.  I'll close with a snippet from Andrew Bacevich's recent, marvelous essay in Harper's, where (borrowing a line from Norman Mailer) puts it as cogently, and as bluntly, as ever:

Take the case of Iraq, now bizarrely trumpeted in some quarters as a “success” and even more bizarrely seen as offering a template for how to turn Afghanistan around. Much has been made of the United States Army’s rediscovery of (and growing infatuation with) counterinsurgency doctrine, applied in Iraq beginning in early 2007 when President Bush launched his so-called surge and anointed General David Petraeus as the senior U.S. commander in Baghdad. Yet technique is no substitute for strategy. Violence in Iraq may be down, but evidence of the promised political reconciliation that the surge was intended to produce remains elusive. America’s Mesopotamian misadventure continues. Pretending that the surge has redeemed the Iraq war is akin to claiming that when Andy Jackson “caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans” he thereby enabled the United States to emerge victorious from the War of 1812. Such a judgment works well as folklore but ignores an abundance of contrary evidence.

More than six years after it began, Operation Iraqi Freedom has consumed something like a trillion dollars—with the meter still running—and has taken the lives of more than 4,300 American soldiers. Meanwhile, in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities, car bombs continue to detonate at regular intervals, killing and maiming dozens. Anyone inclined to put Iraq in the nation’s rearview mirror is simply deluded. Not long ago, General Raymond Odierno, Petraeus’s successor and the fifth U.S. commander in Baghdad, expressed the view that the insurgency in Iraq is likely to drag on for another five, ten, or fifteen years. Events may well show that Odierno is an optimist.

Given the embarrassing yet indisputable fact that this was an utterly needless war—no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found, no ties between Saddam Hussein and the jihadists established, no democratic transformation of the Islamic world set in motion, no road to peace in Jerusalem discovered in downtown Baghdad—to describe Iraq as a success, and as a model for application elsewhere, is nothing short of obscene. The great unacknowledged lesson of Iraq is the one that Norman Mailer identified decades ago: “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.”

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