January 11, 2007

Finally, Al-Maliki steps up to the plate (we hope)

This article appeared on the MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger.

As expected, President Bush declared the deployment of five U.S. combat brigades to Baghdad and an additional 4,000 troops to Al-Anbar province. While American troops are an important factor in resolving the deteriorating security situation in Baghdad, the real key to success will be the ability – or willingness – of the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to become part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem.

Nuri Al-MalikiSince he was sworn in last spring, the prime minister has stood in the way of U.S. efforts to contain the escalating sectarian violence in the capital city. American commanders have always believed (rightly so) that the major antagonist in the Shi'a versus Sunni violence is the radical cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. American efforts to isolate and subsequently neutralize the group’s stronghold in Sadr City - the sprawling slum that is home to 2.5 million Shi'a - have been resisted or outright vetoed by Al-Maliki. Al-Maliki and Al-Sadr have a close relationship based on their devout Shi'a faith and a political alliance in the fragile coalition that rules Iraq.

If we take the President and the prime minister at their collective word, Al-Maliki has finally made a commitment to act against the sectarian militias. You can use the term “sectarian militia,” but we all know that we really mean the Mahdi Army. There was likely a back-channel communication between President Bush and the Iraqi prime minister that if Al-Maliki is not willing to address Muqtada Al-Sadr’s death squads who have been murdering dozens of Sunnis every day, American commitment would virtually end.

Al-Maliki is now on record that he will confront the Mahdi Army. This is probably his last chance, but he faces an uphill challenge. The Sunnis in Iraq, ever distrustful of the prime minister’s alleged close ties to Iran, refer to Al-Maliki as al-irani (“the Iranian”) and his office as “the Persian carpet.” As I have said before, Al-Maliki must start acting like the prime minister of the government of Iraq, not the government of the Shi'a.

Al-Maliki’s Baghdad security plan calls for 18 Iraqi army and police brigades to deploy to the capital. Add to that the five American brigades and you begin to approach the doctrinal numbers required (1:50) to control an area. The Americans will embed a brigade with each Iraqi division, and there will be no restrictions where they can operate.

The solution is not a question of numbers; it is a question of attitude. There is an Arabic saying, hibr ‘ala waraq (“ink on paper,” similar to our “talk is cheap”). Let’s see if the Iraqi prime minister’s words are more than merely ink on paper. If so, the President has changed course in Iraq. If not, it’s more of the same - more of the same and time to reassess our mission in Iraq.