April 27, 2008

TVO - "Interrogating Torture"

I appeared on the TVO (Ontario's public television network) show The Agenda with Steve Paikin on April 24 in Toronto.

The subject of the program was "Interrogating Torture."

The panel included Mark Bowden (Blackhawk Down), Melissa Williams, Ramin Jahanbegloo and myself.

The video can be seen by clicking here. The post-show web chat can be seen by clicking here.

April 22, 2008

Response to New York Times Article on Military Analysts

Front page - April 20
The Sunday New York Times lead story, Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand portrays the on-air military analysts (including me) for the television and cable networks as puppets and mouthpieces for the Pentagon.

The Oregonian interview with columnist Steve Duin will serve as my response.

Foxes ran amok in media chicken coop
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On Aug. 4, 2005, the day after 14 Marines died in Iraq, Gen. James T. Conway hosted a conference call with the fraternity of retired military analysts to remind them who was expendable and who was not.

"The strategic target remains our population," Conway, then director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, said, according to The New York Times. "We can lose people day in and day out, but they're never going to beat our military. What they can and will do if they can is strip away our support. And you guys can help us not let that happen."

Marines, in other words, were mere casualties of war. The real front-line soldiers of Operation Iraqi Freedom were the analysts who went airborne nightly on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.

In a front-page story in Sunday's Times, reporter David Barstow examined the Pentagon's efforts to turn television's military analysts into a "media Trojan horse," authoritatively shaping coverage of the war from the inside.

One of those analysts is Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a retired Air Force officer -- detailed to the CIA in 1995 -- now living in Port Orford. Well known for his book about Iraq's use of nerve gas in the 1980s, Francona was hired by CNBC to provide perspective in January 2003.

He spent 11 weeks in New York leading up to and following the March invasion, working 12-hour days while providing analysis for various NBC outlets. Francona was initially supportive of the invasion, largely, he admits, because he was charged by the CIA with engineering a "home-grown insurrection" against Saddam. When the 1996 coup failed, "A lot of the guys working for us were killed."

But even after enlisting with the retired military analyst group in 2004, Francona said he never trafficked in the daily -- or four times daily -- Pentagon talking points:

"I take umbrage at some of the analysis, (calling us) puppets, mouthpieces, the propaganda machine. That may have been what the Pentagon intended, but I don't know if that's what they got. They didn't get it here."

Bartow describes a variety of conflicts with the analysts, many of whom are lobbyists for military contracts or overly eager to champion the war games of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And Francona said it was "easy to see" which former generals were parroting the official line of the Pentagon's communication office.

"I took it with a grain of salt," Francona said. "I wasn't drinking the Kool-Aid. In my meetings, they never told us, 'Here's what we'd like you to say.' I would hear them say, 'We'd like to get this message out.' "

That's a compelling request if you spent 28 years, as Francona did, serving in the military: "That's who I am. To stand up there on nationwide TV and criticize those still in uniform, your brothers-in-arms, can be difficult, especially when you know it might not be well-received.

"But NBC was paying me to be an analyst, not a cheerleader."

When Francona was critical -- of the "breakdown of command" at Abu Ghraib or how ill-prepared U.S. troops were to be an army of occupation -- he never heard from the Pentagon, so he was surprised to discover it paid Omnitec Solutions hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor the messages emanating from its "surrogates" and "message-force multipliers."

And he believes Gen. David Patraeus now has the message that bears repeating concerning Iraq: "Sen. (Barack) Obama says we shouldn't be there. Fine. Check that box, and let's move on. Let's not end the war, let's win the war. U.S. forces are capable of doing that with the right leadership."

Steve Duin: 503-221-8597; 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201 steveduin@news.oregonian.com

©2008 The Oregonian

April 17, 2008

DN Gente article

"American troops were not prepared for a military occupation of Iraq"

A full page article in the DN Gente supplement to Lisbon's Diario de Noticias (in Portuguese - click image for larger).

April 15, 2008

Carter's Hamas meeting comes at bad time

This article appeared on MSNBC.com

Carter's Hamas meeting comes at bad time
Opinion: Ex-president is sending wrong message to terrorist organization

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona

Military analyst - MSNBC

Former President Jimmy Carter plans to meet with Khalid Mishaal, a senior leader of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, more commonly known as Hamas. Carter believes that in the revival of the Middle East peace process, Hamas must be included in the discussions, and has taken it upon himself to make that happen.

No doubt Hamas has a key role in the peace process. The fundamentalist group, regarded by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, demonstrated its political power and importance by winning the last Palestinian elections handily in 2006.

Last year they forcibly expanded their control of the Gaza Strip, in effect turning the area into an Islamic enclave and marginalizing any residual influence of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and his Fatah party. Hamas turned a blind eye as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another terrorist organization, increased its Qassam rocket attacks into southern Israel. Recently there were two deadly suicide bomber attacks inside Israel and Hamas may have even been directly involved in Katyusha rocket attacks on cities as far north as Askhelon

In response, the Israelis tightened their grip on the Gaza Strip, imposing a blockade on most consumer items as well as some food and fuel items since Gaza needs Israeli fuel to generate electricity. Because of growing popular frustration with the blockade and with Hamas for causing it, Hamas breached the border with Egypt, opening the frontier for a massive inflow of badly needed food, fuel, medicine, consumer goods, etc. According to the Israelis, Hamas also imported additional weapons, including more rocket-making materials as well as longer-ranged Katyushas.

Visit could not come at a worse time
It is against this backdrop that President Carter has decided unilaterally to meet Hamas’ top political leader. This visit could not come at a worse time. We have a former president traveling to a country on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism to meet with the leader of a terrorist organization that conducts daily attacks on one of America’s closest allies. This sends the wrong message to Hamas; the wrong message at the wrong time.

It claims that if you are Hamas — or any terrorist organization — conduct terrorist attacks, kill innocent noncombatants, remove rival political party officials, breach an international border and import advanced weaponry, then you will be rewarded with international recognition by one of the world’s foremost peace negotiators that you are a legitimate interlocutor in the peace process.

The Israelis are the ones who need to talk to Hamas, as they have in the past. As long as Jimmy Carter is sitting down with Khalid Mishaal in Damascus, what incentive is there for Palestinian Prime Minister and Hamas official Ismail Haniyah to talk to the Israelis? What incentive is there to stop the daily attacks on Israel?

Mr. Carter, please reconsider what you are doing. You are attempting to negotiate between two opposing parties, one of which has specifically asked you not to do so. The U.S. State Department has asked you not to do so. Just whom do you represent at the table?

The use of “good offices,” a neutral third party to facilitate negotiations, is a well-known concept. After all, that’s what you did at Camp David. There, of course, both sides were looking to the United States and to you to play the honest broker role.

© 2008 MSNBC Interactive

April 10, 2008

Byzantium Revisited – More on Iraqi Politics

Grand Ayatollah al-Haj al-Sayid 'Ali al-Husayni al-SaystaniPlease read in conjunction with my earlier piece, Byzantine Politics - al-Maliki versus al-Sadr

There is a power struggle in Iraq's Shia community that is headed for a confrontation. The main players are:

- Grand Ayatollah al-Haj al-Sayid* 'Ali al-Husayni al-Saystani (photo at left, commonly rendered as al-Sistani), the senior Shia authority in the country and head of the hauza (religious school) in the holy city of al-Najaf.

- Al-Sayid 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (formerly Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), member of one of Iraq's prominent religious families, many of whom were killed during the Saddam Husayn era. He assumed the leadership of the council upon the murder of his brother Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim. Among the suspects in that assassination are the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. Interestingly, al-Hakim is married to a relative of al-Sadr

- Al-Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, also a member of one of Iraq's prominent religious families, many of whom were killed during the Saddam Husayn era.

- Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, senior leader of the fundamentalist Dawa' party, and the only one in this group who is not a sayid.

Shrine of 'Ali ibn 'Ali Talib, al-NajafThe three sayids - al-Sistani, al-Hakim and al-Sadr - all have their main offices in the holy city of Najaf (al-najaf al-ashraf, "the noblest Najaf"). Najaf is holy to all Shia as it is the site of the tomb of 'Ali ibn 'Ali Talib, whom the Shia consider to be the rightful caliph (successor) and the first imam. Najaf is the center of Shia politics and likely the upcoming political battlefield in this inter-Shia power struggle.

What alliances are forming? Simply put, al-Sistani supports al-Maliki and the Iraqi government. Al-Sistani and al-Hakim have been working closely together since the murder of al-Hakim's brother in 2003. That leaves the odd man out as Muqtada al-Sadr.

Of course, al-Sadr brought much of this on himself. Soon after the American invasion, he maneuvered to set himself up as Iran's major ally in Iraq, angering both al-Sistani and al-Hakim. On more than one occasion, he challenged American forces and was bloodied each time, although in the eyes of his die-hard followers, mere survival meant victory.

Al-Maliki's move against al-Sadr in Basra, and continuing in Sadr City was the first move in the attempt to marginalize al-Sadr and his militia. Al-Maliki later issued an ultimatum to al-Sadr: disband the Mahdi Army or forfeit any future role in Iraqi politics. Of course, al-Maliki has to be willing and able to back that up.

Al-Sistani backed al-Maliki in this demand, putting al-Sadr in the unenviable position of defying the senior Shia religious authority in the country - there is only one grand ayatollah in Iraqi, that being al-Sistani. He has great moral authority in the Shia community. Al-Hakim, no friend of al-Sadr, whom he holds responsible (with some justification) for his brother's murder, will side with al-Sistani.

If al-Sadr refuses to comply, perhaps it will give the Iraqi government and American troops the justification needed to finally address the Muqtada al-Sadr issue once and for all. He will be playing right into the hands of al-Sistani, al-Hakim and al-Maliki.

Personal note: I am not a fan of Nuri al-Maliki, but I support his efforts to rid Iraq of this thug and his murderous Iranian trained, equipped and funded militia.

* Shia religious title indicating a male descendant of the prohet Muhammad. Sayids are entitled to wear the black turban.

NBC Nightly News April 9, 2008

Click on image to view the video

Video: Sensitive U.S. military items for sale

NBC News Investigation: Can insurgents buy U.S. military uniforms online?

By Lisa Myers, Rich Gardella and the NBC News Investigative Unit

The Government Accountability Office issued a report today revealing that undercover government investigators have been able to buy sensitive military goods online, including night-vision goggles, body armor and even plane and helicopter parts.

The report also mentioned another item GAO investigators were able to buy online from sellers on eBay -- infrared tabs worn on combat uniforms by U.S. troops.

"Enemies," the report states, "could use [infrared] tabs to pose as a friendly fighter during night combat, creating confusion on the battlefield and putting troops at risk."

The GAO's findings match the surprising results of a recent NBC News investigation. NBC News discovered that combat uniforms and special equipment designed to protect U.S. troops in war zones are widely available for sale, potentially endangering U.S. soldiers' lives.

How to tell your own troops apart from the enemy is an age-old combat challenge.

For U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, small patches of infrared material attached to combat uniforms, often bearing the image of the U.S. flag, have provided an extra level of protection. They help quickly identify friend from foe.

"When you're wearing night vision goggles and you look over at someone, you can see the patch right away," said NBC News military analyst Rick Francona. "These patches [tell you], 'That's a good guy, that's a bad guy."

NBC News will not reveal exactly how the patches work. Military experts told NBC News they are especially critical at night, in distinguishing the good guys from the bad. Overall, the analysts said, they have provided U.S. troops an edge on the battlefield.

Yet, an NBC News investigation found that both the infrared patches and U.S. combat uniforms are widely available for sale -- in military surplus stores across the U.S. and from various vendors on the Internet.

Posing as civilian customers, we visited several retail stores. We easily found some selling both items. At one store, the sales clerk provided an unsolicited description of the patches' significance, explaining how they give U.S. soldiers an advantage:

"It's identify friend or foe," he explained. "This material reflects in such a way, only the U.S. and their allies have it."

NBC News bought two patches for $14.99 each. We could have bought a boxful. We bought combat uniforms with current U.S. military digital camouflage patterns for various prices, approximately $100 or less for a complete set. No questions asked.

Our Internet transactions were just as easy. We were able to buy uniforms and patches from any number of online vendors. Again, no questions asked.The packages arrived quickly.

The NBC staffers doing the buying were U.S. citizens based in Washington, DC. Our purchases aroused no suspicion. But what about an individual outside the U.S.? Could he buy them and have them shipped overseas?

We asked an NBC News staffer with an Arab name based in the Middle East to try. Although some online vendors refuse to ship overseas, it wasn't hard to find some who would. The vendors sent uniform clothing and the patches -- meant to identify U.S. troops on the battlefield -- to our staffer's hotel in Jordan, a country bordering Iraq.

The vendors included catalogs listing other military surplus equipment for sale. And still, no questions.

"This takes away one of the edges we had," said Francona. "They're readily available to anyone who wants to buy them."

"No question, this is a serious violation of security for U.S. combat forces deployed abroad," said retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, also an NBC News military analyst.

McCaffrey warns that the enemy, wearing U.S. uniforms and patches, could initially pass for U.S. soldiers, perhaps causing American soldiers to hold their fire.

It's happened before. In January 2007, about a dozen insurgents attacked a government compound in Karbala, Iraq, and killed five U.S. soldiers. They got through security in part because they were wearing a convincing disguise -- U.S. military uniforms.

NBC News asked Pentagon officials to comment on our investigation, and to gauge the level of threat posed by the easy commerce in infrared patches.

"The department does not view the sales of military or surplus items properly disposed of in accordance with appropriate policies and regulations as a threat to U.S. forces," one spokeswoman said.

A Defense Department spokesman based in Iraq also downplayed the threat. "The bottom line," he wrote in an email, "is that we understand that there is a continued effort by insurgents to obtain U.S. uniforms, and there are preventative measures and several methods to disseminate this information."

But how is it possible that sensitive items like U.S. combat uniforms and identifying patches apparently can be easily obtained by civilians across the world? The short answer is that commercial sales of these items appear to be legal and unrestricted.

The Defense Department has tried to control the availability of patches and uniforms. In 2006 and 2007, it issued restrictions on their release or sale through Defense Department channels. But the Defense Department restrictions appear to apply only to the military and the government. They do not seem to apply to commercial companies that manufacture or sell the same or nearly identical products. Our search found no U.S. laws or regulations preventing commercial companies or the public from selling or buying commercial versions of U.S. military combat uniforms or the infrared patches.

Before asking our staffer in Jordan to purchase the items, we asked the U.S. Government whether exporting combat uniforms or infrared patches out of the U.S. was illegal. We asked the Department of State and the Department of Commerce, which each manage different export controls. Neither could provide a straight answer. Each department pointed to the other.

The State Department's answer was a qualified "we don't know." Its spokesman told us that in general it "does not license the export of military uniforms." The spokesman also said they could find "no indication" that the infrared patches had "ever undergone...the process through which the Federal Government determines whether the export of an item is to be controlled by the State Department (i.e., that it is covered by the U.S. Munitions List) or controlled by the Commerce Department."

The State Department suggested we ask the Commerce Department. A Commerce Department spokesman told us its experts "tended to think" the items would be controlled by the State Department.

After we bought the items at the store, we emailed the Defense Department official listed as a contact on its published restrictions. We asked, as a private citizen, whether civilians should be able to buy them.

The official's response? We can't control uniforms, but the patches are a controlled item, so "you should remove the patch and destroy it."

Military experts say both the Defense Department and Congress should do much more to keep these sensitive items from falling into the wrong hands. General McCaffrey suggests a federal law restricting commercial sales.

Although civilians can easily obtain as many infrared patches as they want, there are indications that U.S. soldiers in combat zones can't. In letters to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes last October, several soldiers complained they couldn't get enough infrared flag patches.

"I have not asked for a replacement," wrote one soldier based in Iraq. "I doubt my supply sergeant has any flag replacements."

"We have been unable to obtain [extra] flags," wrote another soldier, pointing out that each soldier only gets issued two of them. "We are all trying to figure out ways to keep ours 'in regs'… [We] are forced to set aside one serviceable infrared flag for base wear in order to avoid butt-chewings while visiting the post-exchange and dining facility."

The same soldier noted that some have had to ask their spouses to purchase them for them back at home.

Not having them in good condition is "a risk to our lives," wrote still another in Iraq. "They are the main way our air support can separate us from insurgents."

The GAO and Congress have discussed the infrared patches openly, and how public sales of these items could threaten soldiers' lives. Military experts told NBC News that the public-service benefit in broadcasting a story about the problem outweighed the risk of potentially alerting terrorists or insurgents to the security vulnerability.

"I think our enemies know all about this, said Francona, a retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel. "It's been in the press, we know that the uniforms have fallen into the wrong hands. I think it's important that people know what's going on and they take steps to correct it... I think it's very important that people are aware that this is a problem and I think it's very important that the military correct it."

"I think without an aggressive free press," said McCaffrey, "a lot of these problems never get corrected. The older I live, the more I believe that only through aggressive reporting of failures do we get results out of government in many cases… You've got to flag actions in the ongoing war on terror that haven't been thought through, and that are placing our own people at risk. This is a real service to our deployed forces, including my son who's in combat right now.

Additional reporting by Moufaq Khatib in Amman, Elizabeth Leist in Washington.

April 9, 2008

Byzantine Politics - al-Maliki versus al-Sadr

Muqtada al-Sadr Nuri al-Maliki

After his well-intentioned but poorly executed military operation in Basra that spawned a week of violence in Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has issued an ultimatum to radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr: Disband the Mahdi Army (jaysh al-mahdi, or JAM) or be barred from all future political activity in the country.

This is a real threat to al-Sadr, who sees himself as the future leader of a Shia-dominated conservative Islamic state. Al-Sadr has been positioning himself for this goal for years. Last year he declared a ceasefire soon after the US troop surge began in earnest. He did not do this out a sense of Iraqi nationalism or patriotism – he did it out a sense of survival. With the influx of over 20,000 additional American combat troops whose mission was to engage elements involved in ethno-sectarian violence, he knew his militia would be a prime target, along with al-Qa’idah in Iraq and any remaining Sunni insurgents. His orders to his fighters to stand down allowed the American commanders to focus their combat power on the other players. This was a smart move on al-Sadr’s part.

With al-Qa’idah in Iraq now diminished and being forced into a fight for its survival in Mosul, Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged as a key power broker. However, to be a popularly accepted leader of a Shia-dominant Islamic Iraq would require greater religious credentials than his current status as a hawjat al-islam (“authority on Islam”). To that end, he has spent most of the last year in Iran studying to become an ayatollah. The title of ayatollah would enhance al-Sadr’s already prominent status as a member of the well-known al-Sadr family, as well as being a sayid (descendant of the prophet) himself.

Al-Sadr’s star is on the rise. He has survived numerous confrontations with both the government in Baghdad and with American forces. He usually is on the losing end of these confrontations, yet always manages to emerge with increased stature among his followers. His growing influence represents a threat to the ruling Shia faction headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Al-Maliki’s Dawa’ party is closely allied with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), led by as-Sayid ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hakim, a sayid himself and a member of the other prominent Shia family in the country. For the Dawa’–SIIC alliance to remain the key power brokers in the country, they have to marginalize al-Sadr. The first step is to eliminate al-Sadr’s militia.

The chances of al-Sadr disbanding the JAM in response to al-Maliki’s demand are, in my opinion, almost nonexistent. Without his militia, al-Sadr will have no means of opposing the government and will likely be forced into irrelevance, arrested or possibly even killed. One could almost make the argument that the recent government operation in Basra was an attempt to begin the process of marginalizing al-Sadr. Unfortunately, al-Maliki agreed to a ceasefire proposed by al-Sadr before doing enough damage to the JAM.

Al-Sadr was able to once again survive a confrontation with the government and even elevate his stature among his supporters - there were huge “victory” celebrations in the streets of Sadr City. He appeared to be a successful militia commander, despite the heavy losses his fighters suffered, as well as a statesman for proposing a negotiated end to the confrontation.

This is a classic Byzantine power struggle. Muqtada al-Sadr has to survive to realize his goal of being the leader of Iraq – that survival required he keep his militia intact. On the other hand, Nuri al-Maliki must marginalize al-Sadr if the Dawa’-SIIC alliance is to remain the key power bloc in the country.

It’s all about power. The current ceasefire is temporary - there will be more confrontations between Nuri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr. The winner will be the most powerful man in Iraq.

April 7, 2008

The fall of Baghdad: Five years later

This article appeared on MSNBC.com

Five years after fall of Baghdad, progress mixed
Opinion: Al-Sadr, not prime minister, is still the most powerful man in Iraq

A militiaman loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr carries
his rifle after attacking an Iraqi Army vehicle in the Sadr city Shiite
district east of Baghdad on Sunday. View related photos


By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the commanding general of American forces in Iraq will appear before congressional committees this week, exactly five years after the fall of Baghdad. The general is expected to explain his request to the president that the withdrawal of the additional forces used for the troop “surge” be temporarily stopped after two of the five brigades have departed. No doubt this will lead to charges that the surge has failed and that the recent clashes in Basra and Baghdad’s Sadr City underscore the lack of political reconciliation in the country.

It will be hard to convince the skeptics on the committees that the results of the surge are indeed mixed. Five years after the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdus Square, American forces are still required to maintain security in the country, sometimes even in the capital. Although the invasion itself was a well-executed military campaign, American forces were able to seize Baghdad in less than three weeks and the subsequent insurgencies dashed any hope of a quick withdrawal.

It took us four years of fighting the Sunni insurgency, al-Qaida, jihadists and Shiite militias to figure out that our “firebase” mentality was not working. Garrisoning units in secure areas and leaving them to conduct operations only to depart the scene shortly after securing an objective had temporary effects: the bad guys simply came back after we left. Gen. Petraeus’ strategies have changed that and troops are now out in the communities and stay there day and night. As a brigade commander told me last week, “We walk to work.”

Looking at the current situation in Iraq, there is cause for concern. The purpose of the surge for the last nine months was to provide a window of opportunity for political reconciliation in Iraq, “breathing room” for the various factions to coalesce into a viable government.

There is no question that the U.S. military has upheld its part of the bargain and the same cannot be said of the Iraqi government and political leadership. Only recently have they been able to pass any meaningful legislation, but the major issues facing the country remain in limbo. Just as the national assembly seemed to be moving in the right direction, the confrontation in Basra stopped that from happening now.

To his credit, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acted decisively against Shiite militia elements in Basra, evoking visions of the FBI trying to clean up Prohibition-era Chicago. The mere decision by the Shiite-dominated government to go after warring Shiite militias sent a positive sign to the Sunnis and Kurds and both groups have been concerned over the potential “tyranny of the majority.” Unfortunately, the government did not follow through, instead opting to accept an Iranian-brokered ceasefire with jaysh al-mahdi (Mahdi Army) leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Perception vs. reality
Ceasefires are a time-honored tradition in the Middle East and South Asia. During the fighting in Lebanon, it was not unusual to have several ceasefires in any given week, all short-lived. In Afghanistan, we accepted the word of our Northern Alliance allies that the surrenders of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden were imminent, only to have both escape at the last minute. Making a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr, at a time when it appears that his militia was taking devastating casualties, was the wrong decision by al-Maliki. It allowed al-Sadr to survive again and even gain further strength. Although his militia was badly battered, the perception is that he successfully defied Baghdad and the Americans. In the Middle East, perception always trumps reality.

The concurrent violence in Baghdad’s Sadr City, stronghold of the Mahdi Army, continues, calling into question the wisdom of al-Maliki’s acceptance of the ceasefire. Al-Sadr will not go away without being compelled. If the government in Baghdad is going to succeed, it must deal with the Shiite militias, but most of all Muqtada al-Sadr. Even if the government is successful in its attempt to defeat the remaining al-Qaida jihadists with the current campaign in Mosul, it must still address the Muqtada al-Sadr issue.

Five years after the fall of Baghdad, the Sunni insurgency has been either defeated or co-opted. Al-Qaida in Iraq has been marginalized and hopefully on the verge of eradication. The nascent Iraqi government may be coming together into a coherent body. Unfortunately, Muqtada al-Sadr, despite numerous clashes with the Iraqi government and American forces, remains arguably the most influential man in Iraq. If al-Maliki cannot marginalize Muqtada al-Sadr, the surge will have been for naught.

© 2008 MSNBC Interactive