Commentary Magazine


Topic: Basra

Chilling in Basra

I can’t say I was looking forward to starting my Iraq trip last month in Basra. I hadn’t been to the southern Iraqi city in a few years, but traditionally the weather there in June can be miserable. February or March is one thing, but June and July can be quite another. Not only can Basra be hot, but it can also be humid and miserably dusty.

What a surprise it was to spend a week there and find the weather downright pleasant. Certainly, it’s not Maine or California, but on most days the air was pretty clear, and the evenings cool and breezy.

The weather was a topic many Basrawis loved to discuss, especially when the alternative is more contentious issues relating to sectarianism or the tragedy of terrorism. While some Basrawis say that this year and last have simply been cooler, others credit the restoration of Iraq’s marshes. Truth be told, the United States can only claim indirect credit for the marshes’ return. True to the character of USAID, there was hemming and hawing and a lot of meetings and conferences studying whether to restore the marshes (as farmers had begun to cultivate the drained land) and how best to go about it. In some cases, former marsh dwellers finally took matters into their own hands to break the dykes. One Iraqi—Azzam Alwash—also did yeoman’s work to restore the marshes.

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I can’t say I was looking forward to starting my Iraq trip last month in Basra. I hadn’t been to the southern Iraqi city in a few years, but traditionally the weather there in June can be miserable. February or March is one thing, but June and July can be quite another. Not only can Basra be hot, but it can also be humid and miserably dusty.

What a surprise it was to spend a week there and find the weather downright pleasant. Certainly, it’s not Maine or California, but on most days the air was pretty clear, and the evenings cool and breezy.

The weather was a topic many Basrawis loved to discuss, especially when the alternative is more contentious issues relating to sectarianism or the tragedy of terrorism. While some Basrawis say that this year and last have simply been cooler, others credit the restoration of Iraq’s marshes. Truth be told, the United States can only claim indirect credit for the marshes’ return. True to the character of USAID, there was hemming and hawing and a lot of meetings and conferences studying whether to restore the marshes (as farmers had begun to cultivate the drained land) and how best to go about it. In some cases, former marsh dwellers finally took matters into their own hands to break the dykes. One Iraqi—Azzam Alwash—also did yeoman’s work to restore the marshes.

I remember my first visit to the marshes in 2003, shortly after Iraq’s liberation and soon after the first marshes were re-flooded. I drove from Nasiriyah—near biblical Ur—eastward toward the marshes. It was hot and dusty, but soon after we passed Islah, the air cleared and it felt about ten degrees cooler: The wind off the marshes was like natural air conditioning. Perhaps Basra now is experiencing the same phenomenon: winds blowing from the north pass over the marshes and bring cooler air. That they pass over water and lush land rather than dusty fields also improves air quality. The benefit may be indirect, and Basra still has a long way to go, but it used to be the cultural capital of the Persian Gulf, and locals view the return of their former environment as a sign that Basra once again can reclaim its former glory.

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Life Returning to Normal in Baghdad

It has been almost ten months since the last U.S. troops departed Iraq. Many Iraqis—including many in the Iraqi government—had hoped American forces would stay in one form or another, but as some Iraqi government advisors have made clear in informal chats with me, it was obvious that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton would not take “yes” for an answer when they asked if an agreement was possible.

So how goes life in Iraq? It has been a couple years since I have been to either southern Iraq or northern Iraq but, by all accounts, both are booming, in the figurative rather than literal way. Basra’s new governor has been, according to many Iraqis with whom I have spoken, a breath of fresh air. Investment continues in Basra, Najaf, and their environs. Oil wealth is sparking real estate investment, the hotel and tourist sector, and leading Iraqis to invest in automobile dealerships, among other businesses.

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It has been almost ten months since the last U.S. troops departed Iraq. Many Iraqis—including many in the Iraqi government—had hoped American forces would stay in one form or another, but as some Iraqi government advisors have made clear in informal chats with me, it was obvious that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton would not take “yes” for an answer when they asked if an agreement was possible.

So how goes life in Iraq? It has been a couple years since I have been to either southern Iraq or northern Iraq but, by all accounts, both are booming, in the figurative rather than literal way. Basra’s new governor has been, according to many Iraqis with whom I have spoken, a breath of fresh air. Investment continues in Basra, Najaf, and their environs. Oil wealth is sparking real estate investment, the hotel and tourist sector, and leading Iraqis to invest in automobile dealerships, among other businesses.

Iraqi Kurdistan is also doing well, although haphazard planning and corruption has led to the region having the hotels, restaurants, and clubs of Europe, with hospitals and schools reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa.

For the past several years, however, Baghdad has been a pretty depressing place. After decades of war, it has long had a tired feel. While construction cranes dot the north and south of Iraq, there has not been equivalent development inside the capital city, much to the frustration of city residents.

Still, there is now more reason to be optimistic than in the past. The juxtaposition between the international zone, where American diplomats and many Iraqi politicians hole themselves up, and the rest of Baghdad is striking. While the International Zone is dead, the rest of Baghdad is alive. During both day and night, Iraqis are out and about. As several Iraqis have pointed out, so long as you are not a target (i.e., a politician or someone working for a politician or a foreigner), then life is now normal.

Baghdad is not a pretty town, but the streets are crowded and the restaurants are thriving. At the restaurants, those eating include both men and women. Most women are covered, but not everyone is. I visited one new place—built just recently—with multilevel outdoor dining along the banks of the Tigris River. Wild ducks swam around the lowest platform which jutted out into the river, hoping for scraps from the patrons. Some little girls obliged them. October is the perfect time in Baghdad. The days can still be uncomfortably warm—though no worse than Phoenix, Arizona—but the nights are downright pleasant. Every ice cream café I passed was packed full, with couples and teenagers milling around waiting for tables. It is a scene, alas, that American diplomats will not experience: They seldom emerge from behind the embassy’s walls.

The local government is also starting to take baby steps toward beautifying the city. There is a concerted effort to plant trees, curbs are painted, and fountains were working. So, too, were traffic lights, although no one paid any attention to them. There were no new bridges and roads were still in poor condition.

Larger developments—at least in the central neighborhoods where I was going—are still lacking. Sure, there were some nice new homes that looked like they had been transplanted from Kuwait (and designed by the same tasteless architects) and new car dealerships, but the one distinguishing feature of the Baghdad skyline—if you can call this city of overwhelmingly squat structures a skyline—is that working construction cranes are noticeably absent. The Iraqi budget may be huge, but most of the money goes toward the salaries of the inflated state bureaucracy, not to actual development. That may be fine so long as the price of oil is high, but if it ever drops precipitously, there will be trouble.

The State Department and USAID have never been as serious about lessons-learned as the Pentagon is, but the Iraq situation may be a good place to start. It is worth asking—and discussing in far more than passing—what USAID and American development income achieved in Baghdad. Almost a year after the American military presence officially ended, and more than eight years since Iraqi sovereignty was fully restored, there is precious little ordinary Iraqis can point to in terms of physical infrastructure and say, “The Americans did that.”

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“A Rough Version of Mr. Bush’s Dream May Yet Come True”

In its editorial today, “A Good Year in Iraq,” the Washington Post writes this:

AT THE beginning of this year, Iraq’s fragile new political order faced a momentous challenge. The country needed to hold credible democratic elections at a time when its army was still battling al-Qaeda and other domestic insurgents. The winners had to form a government in spite of deep rifts among leaders and sects, who just three years ago were fighting a civil war. And all this had to happen even as the United States reduced its troops from 150,000 to 50,000 and ended combat operations for those who remained.

The result was a long, painful, contentious, confusing and sometimes bloody year. But when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presented his new government to parliament on Tuesday, Iraq could fairly be said to have passed a major test. It is not yet the peaceful Arab democracy and force for good in the Middle East that President George W. Bush imagined when he decided on invasion eight years ago. But in the past 12 months it has taken some big steps in the right direction.

The editorial goes on to point out that (a) the election was judged free and fair, a very rare event in the Middle East; (b) measures to integrate former Sunni militiamen into the security forces or other government jobs have been implemented; (c) fears that Mr. Maliki would establish a dictatorship look to be exaggerated; (d) the economy is nearing a tipping point, with foreign oil companies refurbishing the fields of southern Iraq and the city of Basra, a militia-ruled jungle four years ago, beginning to boom; and (e) violence has dwindled to the lowest level Iraq probably has known in decades (in September 2006, there were more than 3,300 civilian deaths from violence; this month so far it has counted 62, making Iraq a country far safer than Mexico). Read More

In its editorial today, “A Good Year in Iraq,” the Washington Post writes this:

AT THE beginning of this year, Iraq’s fragile new political order faced a momentous challenge. The country needed to hold credible democratic elections at a time when its army was still battling al-Qaeda and other domestic insurgents. The winners had to form a government in spite of deep rifts among leaders and sects, who just three years ago were fighting a civil war. And all this had to happen even as the United States reduced its troops from 150,000 to 50,000 and ended combat operations for those who remained.

The result was a long, painful, contentious, confusing and sometimes bloody year. But when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presented his new government to parliament on Tuesday, Iraq could fairly be said to have passed a major test. It is not yet the peaceful Arab democracy and force for good in the Middle East that President George W. Bush imagined when he decided on invasion eight years ago. But in the past 12 months it has taken some big steps in the right direction.

The editorial goes on to point out that (a) the election was judged free and fair, a very rare event in the Middle East; (b) measures to integrate former Sunni militiamen into the security forces or other government jobs have been implemented; (c) fears that Mr. Maliki would establish a dictatorship look to be exaggerated; (d) the economy is nearing a tipping point, with foreign oil companies refurbishing the fields of southern Iraq and the city of Basra, a militia-ruled jungle four years ago, beginning to boom; and (e) violence has dwindled to the lowest level Iraq probably has known in decades (in September 2006, there were more than 3,300 civilian deaths from violence; this month so far it has counted 62, making Iraq a country far safer than Mexico).

The Post editorial concludes this way:

It’s still too early to draw conclusions about Iraq, though many opponents of the war did so long ago. Mr. Maliki’s government could easily go wrong; the coming year, which could end with the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops, will likely be just as challenging as this one. But the country’s political class has repeatedly chosen democracy over dictatorship and accommodation over violence. If that keeps up, a rough version of Mr. Bush’s dream may yet come true.

Four years ago this month may have been the low-water mark in Iraq, with the nation gripped by a low-grade but escalating civil war. The American public strongly opposed the war. Almost every Democratic lawmaker in Congress, with the honorable exception of Senator Joseph Lieberman, was in fierce opposition to both the war and what later became known as the “surge.” Republican lawmakers were losing their nerve as well. Three months earlier, in September 2006, Senator Mitch McConnell had asked for, and received, a private meeting with President Bush. Senator McConnell’s message was a simple one: the Iraq war’s unpopularity was going to cost the GOP control of Congress. “Mr. President,” McConnell said, “bring some troops home from Iraq.”

President Bush, to his everlasting credit, not only refused to bend; he increased the American commitment to Iraq and changed our counterinsurgency strategy. And while the situation in Iraq remains fragile and can be undone — and while problems still remain and need to be urgently addressed (including the terrible persecution of Christians occurring in Iraq right now) — this is a moment for our nation, and most especially our military, to take sober satisfaction in what has been achieved. It has not been an easy journey. But it has been a noble and estimable one.

There is no need here to rehearse the names of the few who did not buckle at the moment when the war seemed lost. They know who they are. In the words of Milton, they were “faithful found among the faithless.” Their faithfulness, and in many cases their courage, is being vindicated.

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Re: Iraq Casualties

Max, the Washington Post editorializes today, “The Iraqi Upturn: Don’t look now, but the U.S.-backed government and army may be winning the war.” Finally, others notice the enormous strategic and political gains in Iraq. The lede paragraph is surprisingly optimistic (and accurate):

There’s been a relative lull in news coverage and debate about Iraq in recent weeks — which is odd, because May could turn out to have been one of the most important months of the war. While Washington’s attention has been fixed elsewhere, military analysts have watched with astonishment as the Iraqi government and army have gained control for the first time of the port city of Basra and the sprawling Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, routing the Shiite militias that have ruled them for years and sending key militants scurrying to Iran. At the same time, Iraqi and U.S. forces have pushed forward with a long-promised offensive in Mosul, the last urban refuge of al-Qaeda. So many of its leaders have now been captured or killed that U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, renowned for his cautious assessments, said that the terrorists have “never been closer to defeat than they are now.”

Overall, though, you are correct: aside from this editorial, and an AP wire-report touting decreased Iraq-related deaths, the biggest news story out of Iraq is largely being ignored.

Max, the Washington Post editorializes today, “The Iraqi Upturn: Don’t look now, but the U.S.-backed government and army may be winning the war.” Finally, others notice the enormous strategic and political gains in Iraq. The lede paragraph is surprisingly optimistic (and accurate):

There’s been a relative lull in news coverage and debate about Iraq in recent weeks — which is odd, because May could turn out to have been one of the most important months of the war. While Washington’s attention has been fixed elsewhere, military analysts have watched with astonishment as the Iraqi government and army have gained control for the first time of the port city of Basra and the sprawling Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, routing the Shiite militias that have ruled them for years and sending key militants scurrying to Iran. At the same time, Iraqi and U.S. forces have pushed forward with a long-promised offensive in Mosul, the last urban refuge of al-Qaeda. So many of its leaders have now been captured or killed that U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, renowned for his cautious assessments, said that the terrorists have “never been closer to defeat than they are now.”

Overall, though, you are correct: aside from this editorial, and an AP wire-report touting decreased Iraq-related deaths, the biggest news story out of Iraq is largely being ignored.

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Pelosi Credits Iran’s “Goodwill” for Surge Success

In an interview yesterday with the San Francisco Chronicle, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi claimed the U.S. troop surge failed to accomplish its goal. She then partially credited the success of the troop surge to “the goodwill of the Iranians,” claiming that they were responsible for ending violence in the southern city of Basra.

Asked if she saw any evidence of the surge’s positive impact on her May 17 trip to Iraq she responded:

Well, the purpose of the surge was to provide a secure space, a time for the political change to occur to accomplish the reconciliation. That didn’t happen. Whatever the military success, and progress that may have been made, the surge didn’t accomplish its goal. And some of the success of the surge is that the goodwill of the Iranians-they decided in Basra when the fighting would end, they negotiated that cessation of hostilities-the Iranians.

This is an inexcusable slander. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki brought the Sadrists militias to their knees in a month-long battle that enabled Iraq’s largest Sunni bloc to rejoin the government. Furthermore, when Pelosi met with Prime Minister al-Maliki in Mosul she sang quite a different tune. She had “welcomed Iraq’s progress in passing a budget as well as oil legislation, and a bill paving the way for the provincial elections in the fall that are expected to more equitably redistribute power among local officials,” and stated, “We’re assured the elections will happen here, they will be transparent, they will be inclusive and they will take Iraq closer to the reconciliation we all want it to have.”

Discounting the success of the American military, denying the accomplishments of U.S. allies, and giving the credit to our most dangerous enemies seems like an especially productive week for a Democrat on Capitol Hill. After Nancy Pelosi’s post-Iraq hat trick, there’s really no need for Barack Obama to make this trip after all.

UPDATE: Ace has more on Iran’s “goodwill.”

In an interview yesterday with the San Francisco Chronicle, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi claimed the U.S. troop surge failed to accomplish its goal. She then partially credited the success of the troop surge to “the goodwill of the Iranians,” claiming that they were responsible for ending violence in the southern city of Basra.

Asked if she saw any evidence of the surge’s positive impact on her May 17 trip to Iraq she responded:

Well, the purpose of the surge was to provide a secure space, a time for the political change to occur to accomplish the reconciliation. That didn’t happen. Whatever the military success, and progress that may have been made, the surge didn’t accomplish its goal. And some of the success of the surge is that the goodwill of the Iranians-they decided in Basra when the fighting would end, they negotiated that cessation of hostilities-the Iranians.

This is an inexcusable slander. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki brought the Sadrists militias to their knees in a month-long battle that enabled Iraq’s largest Sunni bloc to rejoin the government. Furthermore, when Pelosi met with Prime Minister al-Maliki in Mosul she sang quite a different tune. She had “welcomed Iraq’s progress in passing a budget as well as oil legislation, and a bill paving the way for the provincial elections in the fall that are expected to more equitably redistribute power among local officials,” and stated, “We’re assured the elections will happen here, they will be transparent, they will be inclusive and they will take Iraq closer to the reconciliation we all want it to have.”

Discounting the success of the American military, denying the accomplishments of U.S. allies, and giving the credit to our most dangerous enemies seems like an especially productive week for a Democrat on Capitol Hill. After Nancy Pelosi’s post-Iraq hat trick, there’s really no need for Barack Obama to make this trip after all.

UPDATE: Ace has more on Iran’s “goodwill.”

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Obama’s Iraq Problem

Once Barack Obama’s appeasement issue completes its turn through the most recent news cycle, the presumptive Democratic nominee will have to face a more worrisome analysis of another aspect of his foreign policy. While he’s been blurring the lines between pre-conditions and diplomatic preparations, between terrorists and terrorist sponsors, clarity has come to Iraq. The Maliki government, the citizens of Iraq, and the Iraqi military are resolved to keep their country on track. Barack Obama continues to deny them support in their efforts.

On Tuesday, during a speech in Iowa, Obama said, “The Bush Iraq policy that asks everything of our troops and nothing of Iraqi politicians is John McCain’s policy too,” without so much as a nod to the Iraqi government’s and Iraqi military’s recent string of achievements. In February, the Iraqi parliament passed three laws, all critical to the future success of statehood: a 2008 budget, a regulation on power-sharing of provincial and local governments, and a partial amnesty of Iraqi prisoners. In March, Prime Minister al-Maliki liberated the southern city of Basra from Sadrists militias thus bringing the country’s largest Sunni bloc back into the government. The Iraqi Army is now successfully ridding Bagdhad’s Sadr City of more Sadrist thugs and Iraqi-U.S. forces are rooting al Qaeda in Iraq from their last stronghold in the northern city of Mosul.

We already know that the world’s candidate has no problem denying American success (Obama has belittled the troop surge since its very inception), but how can the man who speaks incessantly of restoring the U.S.’s global image denigrate the efforts of America’s newest–and arguably most critical–ally? How can he continue to mock the fragile hopes of a newborn democracy? How can any American president do so while making friendly overtures toward a neighboring mullocracy?

If Obama thinks there is no cost for shunning allies, he should look at the recent case of Nancy Pelosi. The Speaker of the House slammed the Maliki government in February at the very same time that the Iraqis passed the above-mentioned laws. She called the troop surge “a failure” and resigned herself to the all-is-lost script of 2006. This past weekend, Pelosi met with a cold reception when visiting Iraq to begin her mea culpa. Time magazine reports:

Pelosi is something of a nonentity to average Iraqis. If they know who she is at all, she is generally seen as an antiwar caricature figure, someone whose views on U.S. troop withdrawals are widely considered unrealistic. Pelosi has said she wants to begin withdrawal of troops this year with a goal for the U.S to be out of Iraq by the end of 2009. It is a time frame virtually no Iraqi political leader sees as feasible. Not even Mahdi Army militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiercest advocate of a U.S. withdrawal on the scene, has called for such a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The lack of popularity of Pelosi’s views was evident in the fact that her first day on the ground Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not make an effort to see her. Maliki is currently in the northern city of Mosul overseeing a crackdown on insurgent networks there. But the city has been largely quiet in recent days, and there was no obvious pressing reason for the Prime Minister to skip Pelosi’s arrival.

Such strained relations with a country so intimately involved with the U.S. is a liability. The problem is Barack Obama continues to espouse the same Iraq plan as Pelosi’s. Every time he says “I will bring this war to an end in 2009,” Iraqi leaders and citizens have reason to quake.

The U.S. is rightly concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq. Consider the risks of having an American president land in Iraq only to get the Pelosi treatment. No lofty talk about talk is going to assuage the concerns of Iraqis who know their futures depend, at the very least, on the recognition of their country’s progress.

Once Barack Obama’s appeasement issue completes its turn through the most recent news cycle, the presumptive Democratic nominee will have to face a more worrisome analysis of another aspect of his foreign policy. While he’s been blurring the lines between pre-conditions and diplomatic preparations, between terrorists and terrorist sponsors, clarity has come to Iraq. The Maliki government, the citizens of Iraq, and the Iraqi military are resolved to keep their country on track. Barack Obama continues to deny them support in their efforts.

On Tuesday, during a speech in Iowa, Obama said, “The Bush Iraq policy that asks everything of our troops and nothing of Iraqi politicians is John McCain’s policy too,” without so much as a nod to the Iraqi government’s and Iraqi military’s recent string of achievements. In February, the Iraqi parliament passed three laws, all critical to the future success of statehood: a 2008 budget, a regulation on power-sharing of provincial and local governments, and a partial amnesty of Iraqi prisoners. In March, Prime Minister al-Maliki liberated the southern city of Basra from Sadrists militias thus bringing the country’s largest Sunni bloc back into the government. The Iraqi Army is now successfully ridding Bagdhad’s Sadr City of more Sadrist thugs and Iraqi-U.S. forces are rooting al Qaeda in Iraq from their last stronghold in the northern city of Mosul.

We already know that the world’s candidate has no problem denying American success (Obama has belittled the troop surge since its very inception), but how can the man who speaks incessantly of restoring the U.S.’s global image denigrate the efforts of America’s newest–and arguably most critical–ally? How can he continue to mock the fragile hopes of a newborn democracy? How can any American president do so while making friendly overtures toward a neighboring mullocracy?

If Obama thinks there is no cost for shunning allies, he should look at the recent case of Nancy Pelosi. The Speaker of the House slammed the Maliki government in February at the very same time that the Iraqis passed the above-mentioned laws. She called the troop surge “a failure” and resigned herself to the all-is-lost script of 2006. This past weekend, Pelosi met with a cold reception when visiting Iraq to begin her mea culpa. Time magazine reports:

Pelosi is something of a nonentity to average Iraqis. If they know who she is at all, she is generally seen as an antiwar caricature figure, someone whose views on U.S. troop withdrawals are widely considered unrealistic. Pelosi has said she wants to begin withdrawal of troops this year with a goal for the U.S to be out of Iraq by the end of 2009. It is a time frame virtually no Iraqi political leader sees as feasible. Not even Mahdi Army militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiercest advocate of a U.S. withdrawal on the scene, has called for such a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The lack of popularity of Pelosi’s views was evident in the fact that her first day on the ground Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not make an effort to see her. Maliki is currently in the northern city of Mosul overseeing a crackdown on insurgent networks there. But the city has been largely quiet in recent days, and there was no obvious pressing reason for the Prime Minister to skip Pelosi’s arrival.

Such strained relations with a country so intimately involved with the U.S. is a liability. The problem is Barack Obama continues to espouse the same Iraq plan as Pelosi’s. Every time he says “I will bring this war to an end in 2009,” Iraqi leaders and citizens have reason to quake.

The U.S. is rightly concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq. Consider the risks of having an American president land in Iraq only to get the Pelosi treatment. No lofty talk about talk is going to assuage the concerns of Iraqis who know their futures depend, at the very least, on the recognition of their country’s progress.

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Good News from Mosul

On top of the good news in recent days from Basra and Baghdad now comes good news from Mosul–the last stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq. According to Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of Multi-National Division North, the “number of daily attacks in Mosul has dropped at least 85 percent since U.S.-Iraqi forces began an offensive against Sunni insurgents in the city earlier this month.” That’s good news for America and Iraq–and bad news for all those Democrats who long ago wrote off the war as lost.

On top of the good news in recent days from Basra and Baghdad now comes good news from Mosul–the last stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq. According to Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of Multi-National Division North, the “number of daily attacks in Mosul has dropped at least 85 percent since U.S.-Iraqi forces began an offensive against Sunni insurgents in the city earlier this month.” That’s good news for America and Iraq–and bad news for all those Democrats who long ago wrote off the war as lost.

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News from Sadr City

On the front page of today’s New York Times we read this:

Iraqi forces rolled unopposed through the huge Shiite enclave of Sadr City on Tuesday, a dramatic turnaround from the bitter fighting that has plagued the Baghdad neighborhood for two months, and a qualified success for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. As it did in the southern city of Basra last month, the Iraqi government advanced its goal of establishing sovereignty and curtailing the powers of the militia.

The Times story, written by Michael Gordon and Alissa Rubin, rightly contains caveats. Nobody can say just where the militias, who melted away in the face of Iraqi troops backed by American power, might re-emerge, or when Iraqi and American forces might need to fight them again. The main military question is whether the ISF can solidify their hold over Sadr City. And the main political question is whether the Maliki government will cement its gains by winning over a wary population.

Yet the Sadr City military offensive is impressive, especially when executed on top of the success we’ve recently seen in Basra. (After a shaky start, for the first time the Iraqi government has pacified and restored government control there). The Sadr City offensive is doubly impressive when you consider that no American ground forces accompanied the Iraqi troops into there. While we shared intelligence, helped the Iraqi’s in planning the operation and provided overhead reconnaissance, it was “totally Iraqi planned, led and executed,” the U.S. military told the Washington Post.

Sadr City’s “Operation Peace” was better coordinated than the operation in Basra–and it needed to be, since Sadr City is a densely populated neighborhood of more than two million and has been a bastion of support for Moktada al-Sadr. It helps, of course, that the Shiite militia has been badly damaged since late March. According to Col. John Hort, commander of the Third Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division, we have killed the equivalent of a U.S. battalion. At the same time, he says we have seen a lot of indications that some of the senior leadership of the Jaysh al Mahdi and the “special groups” supported by Iran have left Sadr City.

Everything in Iraq is hard, Ambassador Crocker has rightly said, and Sadr City is a particularly difficult nut to crack. There will be hard days as well as good days–and Iraq remains in many ways a broken nation. But it is also a nation in the process of mending itself and, day-by-day, it is taking up the tasks of self-government. That Iraq is a far less violent country than it was is indisputable; just this week we’ve seen the lowest level of security incidents since April 2004. And as the Times says in an accompanying story today, what we are seeing is the first determined effort by Prime Minister Maliki to assert control over the sprawling Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.

Violence will almost surely erupt in Sadr City at some point; the malevolent forces in Iraq aren’t defeated or going away. But for the time being at least, the Iraqi government seems to have the upper hand. This isn’t everything that needs to be done in Iraq–but it’s a necessary part of what needs to be done. And perhaps the skeptics and critics of this war can find the time to recognize this success and laud the efforts of Prime Minister Maliki, his government, and his people, who are–with the extraordinary help of the American military–trying to rebuild a shattered society. There is poignancy and courage in this effort–and now, finally, hope as well.

On the front page of today’s New York Times we read this:

Iraqi forces rolled unopposed through the huge Shiite enclave of Sadr City on Tuesday, a dramatic turnaround from the bitter fighting that has plagued the Baghdad neighborhood for two months, and a qualified success for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. As it did in the southern city of Basra last month, the Iraqi government advanced its goal of establishing sovereignty and curtailing the powers of the militia.

The Times story, written by Michael Gordon and Alissa Rubin, rightly contains caveats. Nobody can say just where the militias, who melted away in the face of Iraqi troops backed by American power, might re-emerge, or when Iraqi and American forces might need to fight them again. The main military question is whether the ISF can solidify their hold over Sadr City. And the main political question is whether the Maliki government will cement its gains by winning over a wary population.

Yet the Sadr City military offensive is impressive, especially when executed on top of the success we’ve recently seen in Basra. (After a shaky start, for the first time the Iraqi government has pacified and restored government control there). The Sadr City offensive is doubly impressive when you consider that no American ground forces accompanied the Iraqi troops into there. While we shared intelligence, helped the Iraqi’s in planning the operation and provided overhead reconnaissance, it was “totally Iraqi planned, led and executed,” the U.S. military told the Washington Post.

Sadr City’s “Operation Peace” was better coordinated than the operation in Basra–and it needed to be, since Sadr City is a densely populated neighborhood of more than two million and has been a bastion of support for Moktada al-Sadr. It helps, of course, that the Shiite militia has been badly damaged since late March. According to Col. John Hort, commander of the Third Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division, we have killed the equivalent of a U.S. battalion. At the same time, he says we have seen a lot of indications that some of the senior leadership of the Jaysh al Mahdi and the “special groups” supported by Iran have left Sadr City.

Everything in Iraq is hard, Ambassador Crocker has rightly said, and Sadr City is a particularly difficult nut to crack. There will be hard days as well as good days–and Iraq remains in many ways a broken nation. But it is also a nation in the process of mending itself and, day-by-day, it is taking up the tasks of self-government. That Iraq is a far less violent country than it was is indisputable; just this week we’ve seen the lowest level of security incidents since April 2004. And as the Times says in an accompanying story today, what we are seeing is the first determined effort by Prime Minister Maliki to assert control over the sprawling Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.

Violence will almost surely erupt in Sadr City at some point; the malevolent forces in Iraq aren’t defeated or going away. But for the time being at least, the Iraqi government seems to have the upper hand. This isn’t everything that needs to be done in Iraq–but it’s a necessary part of what needs to be done. And perhaps the skeptics and critics of this war can find the time to recognize this success and laud the efforts of Prime Minister Maliki, his government, and his people, who are–with the extraordinary help of the American military–trying to rebuild a shattered society. There is poignancy and courage in this effort–and now, finally, hope as well.

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