January 10, 2007

U.S. Troop Surge in Iraq - Over to you Al-Maliki...

This article appeared on the MSNBC Hardball "Hardblogger" blog

President Bush is expected to announce tonight that he will order an increase in the level of U.S. forces in Iraq by as many as 20,000 troops. Most analysts believe that the bulk of these forces will likely be assigned the mission of establishing security in Baghdad, and some tasked with putting increased pressure on the Sunni insurgents in Anbar province. While there is a need to continue operations against the insurgents in the western part of the country, the major focus of these forces should be resolution of the abysmal security situation in Baghdad.

Security in Baghdad is mostly a sectarian issue – Sunni versus Shia. Although there has always been some level of sectarian violence in the capital, it was somewhat held in check by the moral authority exercised by the “moderate” Shia clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and Ayatollah Abd Al-Aziz Al-Hakim. That discipline evaporated in February 2006 with the destruction of Shia Islam’s fourth holiest site, the Al-Askari (or Golden) mosque in Samarra at the hands of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Since then, Shia militias have been waging a murderous – and effective - campaign against Sunnis, with the center of their operations in Baghdad.

The main culprit in the expanding sectarian violence is the Shia militia of Muqtada Al-Sadr, known as the Mahdi Army. Muqtada Al-Sadr, despite his relatively low standing in the Shia religious hierarchy as a hawjat al-islam (scholar of Islam), has eclipsed all other Shia leaders in terms of influence among rank and file Shiites. The cries of “Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada” from many of those present at the execution of Saddam Hussein are testament to that fact.

The security situation in Baghdad is an Iraqi problem that requires an Iraqi solution. It is absolutely essential that Al-Sadr’s militia be either abolished or neutralized. This should be a condition for the deployment of additional American forces. The question is how that happens. Is the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki capable enough - or willing - to take on the Mahdi Army?

Up until now, there has been no indication, despite verbal assurances to the contrary, that the Al-Maliki government has the willpower to marginalize Al-Sadr. When American forces attempted to stop operations of the Mahdi Army in its stronghold of Sadr City, the prime minister stepped in to resist or refute those efforts.

It is time for the Al-Maliki government to act as the government of Iraq, not the government of the Shia. If Al-Maliki does not move against Al-Sadr, why should we?