March 20, 2007

Muqtada al-Sadr – a problem not solved

On the surface, the initial "surge" statistics from Baghdad appear encouraging. By all measures, the number of deaths is down, the number of attacks is down and the number of Iraqi security forces on the street is up.

Good news, right?

Sure, but has the surge solved the problems of sectarian violence in the city and environs? Certainly not, if you look at the continued vicious Sunni attacks against the Shi'a in an attempt to provoke them to reignite the conflict. Thus far, they have been unsuccessful – the Shi'a have followed the advice of their religious leadership and not rejoined the fight. Among those leaders is the virulently anti-American radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr is the head of the jaysh al-mahdi, the Mahdi Army militia. This militia is funded, trained and equipped by the Iranian Al-Qods Force. It is believed that this militia has used the Iranian-supplied deadly explosively-formed munition to great effect against U.S. troops.

Al-Sadr has instructed his fighters in An-Najaf and Baghdad to lay low while the Americans and Iraqis conduct the surge. American officials believe that Al-Sadr has sought refuge in Iran, and his key lieutenants are hiding in the southern cities of Iraq. The local officials of the militia’s stronghold in the Sadr City section of the capital agreed to the introduction of coalition forces into the area, in fact, coalition forces met virtually no resistance.

This is a good strategy on the part of the Shi'a in general and Al-Sadr in particular. In the absence of resistance from the Shi'a, American and Iraqi troops have been focusing on the Sunni extremists. The Shi'a now have a proxy to fight the battle against the Sunnis.

Let’s for the sake of argument assume the surge succeeds in breaking the back of sectarian violence in Baghdad, and defeating the Al-Qa'idah in Iraq and other extremists forces in the Sunni triangle. This becomes a victory for not only the coalition forces – Iraq and American – but a victory for the Shi'a as well. The coalition will have eliminated their enemy for them.

Muqtada Al-Sadr is waiting for his moment. He remains one of the most dangerous men in Iraq, and one of the most powerful. We are killing his enemies, but not destroying his power base, his militia, at the same time.

When the dust settles and the situation appears calm, there is little doubt that American forces will begin a withdrawal. When that happens, the Iraqi forces will be in charge. The Iraqi forces are overwhelmingly Shi'a - they will not protest the re-emergence of Muqtada Al-Sadr as a - maybe the - major political and religious force in Iraq.

We have not solved the Muqtada Al-Sadr problem, only deferred it for another time. When it resurfaces, and it will, we need to be ready and willing to address it. Muqtada Al-Sadr cannot be allowed to emerge unscathed - he must be arrested, killed or in some other way marginalized. Are the Iraqi forces under command of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki going to do it? We need a commitment that he will, or we should be prepared to do it ourselves.

Otherwise, we will be turning the Iraq over to the likes of Muqtada Al-Sadr.