Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mahdi Army

Not Done With The Mahdi Army

There is a strange quality to the repeated “ceasefires” between the Iraqi government and Moqtada al-Sadr. Bill Roggio reports that Iraqi and Coalition forces are currently engaged in anti-Sadrist operations in the eastern town of Abu Al Khasib, along the Iranian border. And they’re doing very well. The following is particularly interesting:

Abu Al Khasib is on Highway 6 at the border crossing with Iran at Shalamcheh. The Iranian city of Shalamcheh is the main forward operating base for the Ramazan Corps’s southernmost command. The Ramazan Corps is the Qods Force command assigned to direct operations inside Iraq. Weapons, fighters, and cash smuggled across the border into Basrah would pass through Abu Al Khasib.

The Iraqi Army has been expanding its operations along the Iranian supply routes in the South during the month of May. After clearing the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed militias from Basrah, operations have expanded into Az Zubayr and Al Qurnah.

Iraqi troops from the 1st Iraqi Army Division entered Az Zubayr on May 25. Az Zubayr, which is just southeast of Basrah, sits at the crossroads to Nasariyah, a tactical distribution hub for Iranian weapons. Mahdi Army Special groups would pass through Az Zubayr as they moved weapons from Iran to Basrah to Nasariyah. Iraqi Special Operations Forces captured a Special Groups financier and weapons smuggler in Az Zubayr on May 21.

Prime Minister Maliki is going after the Iranian support system, which puts a crimp in theories about the Iraqi government’s affection for Ahmadinejad.

Roggio also reports that Iraqi forces are continuing to clamp down on Sadrists in Baghdad, where eleven Mahdi Army members have been rounded up in the last 24 hours. It has become clear that the Iraqi Army, once laughed off as perpetually weak and green, is now involved in decisions and operations too fast-paced and complex for the mainstream media to follow. The New York Times coverage of Basra and Sadr City was so misleading, I find it barely pays to turn to any but experts such as Roggio on these matters.

There is a strange quality to the repeated “ceasefires” between the Iraqi government and Moqtada al-Sadr. Bill Roggio reports that Iraqi and Coalition forces are currently engaged in anti-Sadrist operations in the eastern town of Abu Al Khasib, along the Iranian border. And they’re doing very well. The following is particularly interesting:

Abu Al Khasib is on Highway 6 at the border crossing with Iran at Shalamcheh. The Iranian city of Shalamcheh is the main forward operating base for the Ramazan Corps’s southernmost command. The Ramazan Corps is the Qods Force command assigned to direct operations inside Iraq. Weapons, fighters, and cash smuggled across the border into Basrah would pass through Abu Al Khasib.

The Iraqi Army has been expanding its operations along the Iranian supply routes in the South during the month of May. After clearing the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed militias from Basrah, operations have expanded into Az Zubayr and Al Qurnah.

Iraqi troops from the 1st Iraqi Army Division entered Az Zubayr on May 25. Az Zubayr, which is just southeast of Basrah, sits at the crossroads to Nasariyah, a tactical distribution hub for Iranian weapons. Mahdi Army Special groups would pass through Az Zubayr as they moved weapons from Iran to Basrah to Nasariyah. Iraqi Special Operations Forces captured a Special Groups financier and weapons smuggler in Az Zubayr on May 21.

Prime Minister Maliki is going after the Iranian support system, which puts a crimp in theories about the Iraqi government’s affection for Ahmadinejad.

Roggio also reports that Iraqi forces are continuing to clamp down on Sadrists in Baghdad, where eleven Mahdi Army members have been rounded up in the last 24 hours. It has become clear that the Iraqi Army, once laughed off as perpetually weak and green, is now involved in decisions and operations too fast-paced and complex for the mainstream media to follow. The New York Times coverage of Basra and Sadr City was so misleading, I find it barely pays to turn to any but experts such as Roggio on these matters.

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Obama Must Face Iraq’s Truth

Three Iraq-related stories from Sunday are worth noting. According to Reuters

U.S. troop deaths in Iraq fell to their lowest level last month since the 2003 invasion and officials said on Sunday improved security also helped the country boost oil production in May to a post-war high. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Iraq’s oil minister credited better security for the two milestones, which illustrated a dramatic turnabout in the fortunes of a country on the brink of all-out sectarian civil war just 12 months ago. “We’ve still got a distance to go but I think lower casualty rates are a reflection of some real progress,” Gates told reporters in Singapore. “The key will be to continue to sustain the progress we have seen.”

In the New York Times we read this:

The recent successes in quieting violence in Basra and Sadr City appear to be stretching to the long-rebellious Sunni Arab district here in Mosul, raising hopes that the Iraqi Army may soon have tenuous control over all three of Iraq’s major cities. In this city, never subdued by the increase of American troops in Iraq last year, weekly figures on attacks are down by half since May 10, when the Iraqi military began intensified operations here with the backing of the American military. Iraqi soldiers searching house to house, within American tank cordons, have arrested more than 1,000 people suspected of insurgent activity. The Iraqi soldiers “are heady from the Basra experience,” Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, the commander of American forces in Mosul, said in an interview. “They have learned the right lessons.”… American and Iraqi officials have called Mosul the last urban bastion of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other Sunni jihadist groups.

And in Washington Post we learned this:

A little over two weeks ago, U.S. troops in Sadr City were on the front lines of fierce, unrelenting urban warfare. But virtually overnight, their main mission has become one of rebuilding portions of the vast, tattered Shiite district and building trust in neighborhoods where many residents despise Americans. Reaching that point took a fragile cease-fire agreement that called for a limited U.S. role in military operations in Sadr City, a stronghold of militias loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; thousands of Iraqi soldiers; and wads of cash. “If we get Sadr City right and create irreversible momentum, there’s no turning back,” Brig. Gen. Mike Milano, deputy commander of U.S. forces responsible for Baghdad, said Saturday during a visit to Sadr City.

Sunday is also the day the Washington Post editorialized that the U.S.-backed government and army in Iraq “may be winning the war,” that Iraq passed a “turning point last fall” (when the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign launched in 2007 produced a dramatic drop in violence), and that “another tipping point may be near, one that sees the Iraqi government and army restoring order in almost all of the country . . . ”

The Post rightly echoes the caution repeatedly issued by General Petraeus; it is of course too early to celebrate. Among other things, the Post cautions, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army can still regroup and Iran will almost certainly seek to stir up new violence. Beyond that, Iraq, while far less violent and less fractured than in the past, is still a broken society in many respects –and rebuilding it will not be an easy or quick undertaking. We are, with the Iraqis, engaged in an enormous, long-term nation-building effort, one that was delayed for far longer than it should have been because we had in place the wrong counter-insurgency strategy.

Still, the Post is quite right to recognize the progress we have seen. And it is right in challenging Senator Obama, whose back-and-forth record on Iraq has culminated in his current support for a near-total withdrawal of U.S. combat troops (it’s worth recalling that in February 2007, in announcing his bid for the presidency, Obama called for withdrawing combat troops by March 2008–and in May 2007, Obama voted against funding for combat operations). In the words of the Post:

If the positive trends continue, proponents of withdrawing most U.S. troops, such as Mr. Obama, might be able to responsibly carry out further pullouts next year. Still, the likely Democratic nominee needs a plan for Iraq based on sustaining an improving situation, rather than abandoning a failed enterprise. That will mean tying withdrawals to the evolution of the Iraqi army and government, rather than an arbitrary timetable; Iraq’s 2009 elections will be crucial. It also should mean providing enough troops and air power to continue backing up Iraqi army operations such as those in Basra and Sadr City. When Mr. Obama floated his strategy for Iraq last year, the United States appeared doomed to defeat. Now he needs a plan for success.

In fact, Senator Obama doesn’t need a plan for success; that is already in place. He merely needs to demonstrate the intellectual honesty and political courage to embrace it and say, publicly, that he will stay with it.

Three Iraq-related stories from Sunday are worth noting. According to Reuters

U.S. troop deaths in Iraq fell to their lowest level last month since the 2003 invasion and officials said on Sunday improved security also helped the country boost oil production in May to a post-war high. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Iraq’s oil minister credited better security for the two milestones, which illustrated a dramatic turnabout in the fortunes of a country on the brink of all-out sectarian civil war just 12 months ago. “We’ve still got a distance to go but I think lower casualty rates are a reflection of some real progress,” Gates told reporters in Singapore. “The key will be to continue to sustain the progress we have seen.”

In the New York Times we read this:

The recent successes in quieting violence in Basra and Sadr City appear to be stretching to the long-rebellious Sunni Arab district here in Mosul, raising hopes that the Iraqi Army may soon have tenuous control over all three of Iraq’s major cities. In this city, never subdued by the increase of American troops in Iraq last year, weekly figures on attacks are down by half since May 10, when the Iraqi military began intensified operations here with the backing of the American military. Iraqi soldiers searching house to house, within American tank cordons, have arrested more than 1,000 people suspected of insurgent activity. The Iraqi soldiers “are heady from the Basra experience,” Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, the commander of American forces in Mosul, said in an interview. “They have learned the right lessons.”… American and Iraqi officials have called Mosul the last urban bastion of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other Sunni jihadist groups.

And in Washington Post we learned this:

A little over two weeks ago, U.S. troops in Sadr City were on the front lines of fierce, unrelenting urban warfare. But virtually overnight, their main mission has become one of rebuilding portions of the vast, tattered Shiite district and building trust in neighborhoods where many residents despise Americans. Reaching that point took a fragile cease-fire agreement that called for a limited U.S. role in military operations in Sadr City, a stronghold of militias loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; thousands of Iraqi soldiers; and wads of cash. “If we get Sadr City right and create irreversible momentum, there’s no turning back,” Brig. Gen. Mike Milano, deputy commander of U.S. forces responsible for Baghdad, said Saturday during a visit to Sadr City.

Sunday is also the day the Washington Post editorialized that the U.S.-backed government and army in Iraq “may be winning the war,” that Iraq passed a “turning point last fall” (when the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign launched in 2007 produced a dramatic drop in violence), and that “another tipping point may be near, one that sees the Iraqi government and army restoring order in almost all of the country . . . ”

The Post rightly echoes the caution repeatedly issued by General Petraeus; it is of course too early to celebrate. Among other things, the Post cautions, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army can still regroup and Iran will almost certainly seek to stir up new violence. Beyond that, Iraq, while far less violent and less fractured than in the past, is still a broken society in many respects –and rebuilding it will not be an easy or quick undertaking. We are, with the Iraqis, engaged in an enormous, long-term nation-building effort, one that was delayed for far longer than it should have been because we had in place the wrong counter-insurgency strategy.

Still, the Post is quite right to recognize the progress we have seen. And it is right in challenging Senator Obama, whose back-and-forth record on Iraq has culminated in his current support for a near-total withdrawal of U.S. combat troops (it’s worth recalling that in February 2007, in announcing his bid for the presidency, Obama called for withdrawing combat troops by March 2008–and in May 2007, Obama voted against funding for combat operations). In the words of the Post:

If the positive trends continue, proponents of withdrawing most U.S. troops, such as Mr. Obama, might be able to responsibly carry out further pullouts next year. Still, the likely Democratic nominee needs a plan for Iraq based on sustaining an improving situation, rather than abandoning a failed enterprise. That will mean tying withdrawals to the evolution of the Iraqi army and government, rather than an arbitrary timetable; Iraq’s 2009 elections will be crucial. It also should mean providing enough troops and air power to continue backing up Iraqi army operations such as those in Basra and Sadr City. When Mr. Obama floated his strategy for Iraq last year, the United States appeared doomed to defeat. Now he needs a plan for success.

In fact, Senator Obama doesn’t need a plan for success; that is already in place. He merely needs to demonstrate the intellectual honesty and political courage to embrace it and say, publicly, that he will stay with it.

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Maliki Stands Firm

It seems like only yesterday that, in the course of an online debate on the surge, my fellow Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steve Simon was claiming that “the ill-fated Basra offensive . . . was a humiliating blow for Maliki.” I tried to point out to Steve that, notwithstanding poor planning and early setbacks, the Basra offensive was not so ill-fated–that it was actually bolstering Prime Minister Maliki’s standing.

That was last week. Today, as if to confirm that analysis, the New York Times runs a long front-pager from Basra that calls the offensive “a rare success” for “forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki,” who “have largely quieted the city.” The Times is right to note that the gains are “fragile,” but they are nevertheless impressive: “in interviews across Basra, residents overwhelmingly reported a substantial improvement in their everyday lives.”

Notwithstanding some support from coalition forces, principally in the form of air cover and military advisers, almost all of the fighting has been done by the Iraqi Security Forces. The people of Basra realize that and are grateful. The Times quotes “one youth named Alaa” as saying: “I want to thank Mr. Nuri al-Maliki, because he cleaned Basra of murderers, hijackers and thieves.”

Meanwhile, further north, fighting continues in Sadr City despite a weekend truce proclaimed by Maliki and Moqtada al Sadr. The outcome is still uncertain, but it appears that Iraqi and American forces are making good progress in securing the southern third of Sadr City, which is being sealed off from the rest of this teeming slum with a giant concrete wall.

Pressure seems to be building on the Mahdi Army, which is probably why Sadr proclaimed the latest ceasefire. Of course his word isn’t worth much. And even if he is sincere, lots of Shiite extremists will continue resisting no matter what. But while death and destruction are never good news, this fighting nevertheless represents progress of a sort. The Sadr City offensive, like the Basra offensive, shows that the Iraqi government isn’t as sectarian as its critics feared: It is willing to take on Shiite as well as Sunni extremists. That will bolster the government’s standing and further the cause of sectarian and ethnic reconciliation.

It seems like only yesterday that, in the course of an online debate on the surge, my fellow Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steve Simon was claiming that “the ill-fated Basra offensive . . . was a humiliating blow for Maliki.” I tried to point out to Steve that, notwithstanding poor planning and early setbacks, the Basra offensive was not so ill-fated–that it was actually bolstering Prime Minister Maliki’s standing.

That was last week. Today, as if to confirm that analysis, the New York Times runs a long front-pager from Basra that calls the offensive “a rare success” for “forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki,” who “have largely quieted the city.” The Times is right to note that the gains are “fragile,” but they are nevertheless impressive: “in interviews across Basra, residents overwhelmingly reported a substantial improvement in their everyday lives.”

Notwithstanding some support from coalition forces, principally in the form of air cover and military advisers, almost all of the fighting has been done by the Iraqi Security Forces. The people of Basra realize that and are grateful. The Times quotes “one youth named Alaa” as saying: “I want to thank Mr. Nuri al-Maliki, because he cleaned Basra of murderers, hijackers and thieves.”

Meanwhile, further north, fighting continues in Sadr City despite a weekend truce proclaimed by Maliki and Moqtada al Sadr. The outcome is still uncertain, but it appears that Iraqi and American forces are making good progress in securing the southern third of Sadr City, which is being sealed off from the rest of this teeming slum with a giant concrete wall.

Pressure seems to be building on the Mahdi Army, which is probably why Sadr proclaimed the latest ceasefire. Of course his word isn’t worth much. And even if he is sincere, lots of Shiite extremists will continue resisting no matter what. But while death and destruction are never good news, this fighting nevertheless represents progress of a sort. The Sadr City offensive, like the Basra offensive, shows that the Iraqi government isn’t as sectarian as its critics feared: It is willing to take on Shiite as well as Sunni extremists. That will bolster the government’s standing and further the cause of sectarian and ethnic reconciliation.

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“It’s Hard To Say No”

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Mahdi Army commander Abu Baqr cops to getting weapons from Iran to use against Americans.

He still hates Iran. But now, he said, he accepts its weapons to fight the U.S. military, figuring he can deal with his distaste for the Iranians later. So he takes bombs that can rip a hole in a U.S. tank and rockets that can pound Baghdad’s Green Zone without apology or regret.

“I think that the Iranians are more dangerous than the Americans. I hate them and I don’t trust them,” he said in an interview over soft drinks. But the militia has limited resources, he said, and “therefore, when somebody gives you or offers help, it’s hard to say no.”

He laughed: “If it came from Israel, we would use it.”

This supports what the U.S. has been saying for a long time: Iran is arming Iraqis who kill Americans. When General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified on Capitol Hill last month, General Petraeus engaged in the following exchange with Joe Lieberman:

LIEBERMAN: Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands – excuse me – hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?

PETRAEUS: It certainly is. I do believe that is correct.

Yet, in an interview shortly after the testimony, when ABC News asked Ryan Crocker if Americans were in a “proxy war” with Iran, Crocker responded, “It may be that the Iranians see it in that light, we certainly do not.”

If one country decides to go to war (proxy or otherwise) with another country and the second country doesn’t acknowledge it, does that mean only one country is at war? With today’s admission from Abu Baqr, we have to admit that we’re choosing not to defend ourselves in the proxy war with Iran. Of course, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has just announced he’s all for moving things out of the “proxy” realm altogether. It’s hard to figure out just what it will take before the U.S. decides to do something about Iran.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Mahdi Army commander Abu Baqr cops to getting weapons from Iran to use against Americans.

He still hates Iran. But now, he said, he accepts its weapons to fight the U.S. military, figuring he can deal with his distaste for the Iranians later. So he takes bombs that can rip a hole in a U.S. tank and rockets that can pound Baghdad’s Green Zone without apology or regret.

“I think that the Iranians are more dangerous than the Americans. I hate them and I don’t trust them,” he said in an interview over soft drinks. But the militia has limited resources, he said, and “therefore, when somebody gives you or offers help, it’s hard to say no.”

He laughed: “If it came from Israel, we would use it.”

This supports what the U.S. has been saying for a long time: Iran is arming Iraqis who kill Americans. When General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified on Capitol Hill last month, General Petraeus engaged in the following exchange with Joe Lieberman:

LIEBERMAN: Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands – excuse me – hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?

PETRAEUS: It certainly is. I do believe that is correct.

Yet, in an interview shortly after the testimony, when ABC News asked Ryan Crocker if Americans were in a “proxy war” with Iran, Crocker responded, “It may be that the Iranians see it in that light, we certainly do not.”

If one country decides to go to war (proxy or otherwise) with another country and the second country doesn’t acknowledge it, does that mean only one country is at war? With today’s admission from Abu Baqr, we have to admit that we’re choosing not to defend ourselves in the proxy war with Iran. Of course, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has just announced he’s all for moving things out of the “proxy” realm altogether. It’s hard to figure out just what it will take before the U.S. decides to do something about Iran.

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McCain on Basra and Maliki

I just got off a blogger call with John McCain and asked him about his impressions of the Iraqi army’s fight against Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra. He described the outcome as a “pleasant turn of events” and said that Prime Minister Maliki “surprised us all.” McCain conceded that there were setbacks at first, but said that with limited American support the Iraqi army has wrested control of Basra from the Sadrites. The outcome in Basra has likely brought Iraq’s main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, back into the government.

Interestingly, McCain said that before the Basra fight began, he was under the impression that the Iraqi army was going to finish up operations against al Qaeda holdouts in Mosul and then deal with the Mahdi fighters in Basra. It seems Maliki displayed both adaptability and leadership in changing the course and calling the shots (he tipped of David Petraeus to the Basra plan a couple of days in advance.) With the MSM getting both the military outcome and the political ramifications of Basra so hopelessly wrong, it will be interesting to see how they cover resumed operations in Mosul.

I just got off a blogger call with John McCain and asked him about his impressions of the Iraqi army’s fight against Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra. He described the outcome as a “pleasant turn of events” and said that Prime Minister Maliki “surprised us all.” McCain conceded that there were setbacks at first, but said that with limited American support the Iraqi army has wrested control of Basra from the Sadrites. The outcome in Basra has likely brought Iraq’s main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, back into the government.

Interestingly, McCain said that before the Basra fight began, he was under the impression that the Iraqi army was going to finish up operations against al Qaeda holdouts in Mosul and then deal with the Mahdi fighters in Basra. It seems Maliki displayed both adaptability and leadership in changing the course and calling the shots (he tipped of David Petraeus to the Basra plan a couple of days in advance.) With the MSM getting both the military outcome and the political ramifications of Basra so hopelessly wrong, it will be interesting to see how they cover resumed operations in Mosul.

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About That Basra Debacle . . .

Ever since the Iraqi insurgency first proved resilient, the MSM has not missed an opportunity to label any military challenge a lost cause. On March 31, the New York Times’s James Glanz and Erica Goode reported that the Iraqi military was unable to drive Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army from Basra, forcing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to approach Sadr, hat in hand, and plead with him to stand down. Sadr reportedly complied. The Times painted a worrisome picture of Maliki’s predicament:

Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the Basra campaign and that he is in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival, for a way out.

And it was a chance for Mr. Sadr to flaunt his power, commanding both armed force and political strength that can forcefully challenge the other dominant Shiite parties, including Mr. Maliki’s Dawa movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Three weeks later. Same battle, same players, same paper, same reporter. Here’s James Glanz, writing this time with Alissa J. Rubin in today’s New York Times.

Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra on Saturday, and Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad strongly endorsed the Iraqi government’s monthlong military operation against the fighters.

[…]

Despite the apparent concession of Basra, Mr. Sadr issued defiant words on Saturday night. In a long statement read from the loudspeakers of his Sadr City Mosque, he threatened to declare “war until liberation” against the government if fighting against his militia forces continued.

But it was difficult to tell whether his words posed a real threat or were a desperate effort to prove that his group was still a feared force. . .

What a strange ceasefire it was, leading as it did to three more weeks of fighting; what a strange powerlessness Maliki suffered, leading as it did to total victory; and what a strange power flaunted by Sadr, leading as it did to total defeat.

In short, the evidence is in: the Times got Basra upside down. The battle that James Glanz saw as a decisive sign of Maliki’s impotence, Sadr’s influence, and Iraq’s hopelessness proved to be a demonstration of Maliki’s adaptability, Sadr’s irrelevance, and Iraq’s capacity to free itself from the sectarian divisions that characterized its pre-Surge state of affairs. To be sure, Maliki stumbled in the early parts of the Basra fight. However, he obviously did not approach Sadr as a desperate man, but as a statesman who wanted to augment his military approach with diplomacy. At the time, Maliki even said Iraqi troops would continue the fight in Basra—a fact the Times ignored.

In his statement on Saturday, Sadr summed up the most important aspect: “This government has forgotten that we are their brothers and were part of them.” Indeed, they have. Mesopotamia’s supposedly inescapable sectarian allegiances are loosening, and those who are set on exploiting the Iraq that was will continue to find themselves complaining on the sidelines.

Ever since the Iraqi insurgency first proved resilient, the MSM has not missed an opportunity to label any military challenge a lost cause. On March 31, the New York Times’s James Glanz and Erica Goode reported that the Iraqi military was unable to drive Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army from Basra, forcing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to approach Sadr, hat in hand, and plead with him to stand down. Sadr reportedly complied. The Times painted a worrisome picture of Maliki’s predicament:

Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the Basra campaign and that he is in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival, for a way out.

And it was a chance for Mr. Sadr to flaunt his power, commanding both armed force and political strength that can forcefully challenge the other dominant Shiite parties, including Mr. Maliki’s Dawa movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Three weeks later. Same battle, same players, same paper, same reporter. Here’s James Glanz, writing this time with Alissa J. Rubin in today’s New York Times.

Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra on Saturday, and Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad strongly endorsed the Iraqi government’s monthlong military operation against the fighters.

[…]

Despite the apparent concession of Basra, Mr. Sadr issued defiant words on Saturday night. In a long statement read from the loudspeakers of his Sadr City Mosque, he threatened to declare “war until liberation” against the government if fighting against his militia forces continued.

But it was difficult to tell whether his words posed a real threat or were a desperate effort to prove that his group was still a feared force. . .

What a strange ceasefire it was, leading as it did to three more weeks of fighting; what a strange powerlessness Maliki suffered, leading as it did to total victory; and what a strange power flaunted by Sadr, leading as it did to total defeat.

In short, the evidence is in: the Times got Basra upside down. The battle that James Glanz saw as a decisive sign of Maliki’s impotence, Sadr’s influence, and Iraq’s hopelessness proved to be a demonstration of Maliki’s adaptability, Sadr’s irrelevance, and Iraq’s capacity to free itself from the sectarian divisions that characterized its pre-Surge state of affairs. To be sure, Maliki stumbled in the early parts of the Basra fight. However, he obviously did not approach Sadr as a desperate man, but as a statesman who wanted to augment his military approach with diplomacy. At the time, Maliki even said Iraqi troops would continue the fight in Basra—a fact the Times ignored.

In his statement on Saturday, Sadr summed up the most important aspect: “This government has forgotten that we are their brothers and were part of them.” Indeed, they have. Mesopotamia’s supposedly inescapable sectarian allegiances are loosening, and those who are set on exploiting the Iraq that was will continue to find themselves complaining on the sidelines.

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Where’s the Nuance?

The Washington Post editorial board has a modest conclusion about the fighting in Basra:

What the end of the fighting demonstrated is that Mr. Maliki’s government and army are not yet strong enough to decisively impose themselves by force in areas controlled by the Mahdi Army or other militias, at least not without the full support of U.S. ground forces. The fact that such support remains available to the government no doubt contributed to Mr. Sadr’s embrace of a cease-fire. By the same token, American withdrawal could precipitate a far bloodier conflict that, if won by the Mahdi Army, would be a major reversal for U.S. interests in the Middle East. At best, the battle of Basra will persuade the Shiite parties to fight for control over the city in upcoming provincial elections, rather than in the streets. But the fact that an Iraqi government commonly described as impotent and inert now is willing and able to fight Shiite militias is a step in the right direction.

This rather restrained view seems to align with available facts. You can quibble with it, but it is a responsible attempt to assess the facts, draw conclusions and elucidate lessons which might shape future action.

But there is none–absolutely none–of this analysis to be found among the Democratic presidential contenders or members of Congress. Facts at this point are irrelevant as they pursue a determined course of retreat.

It was not too long ago that the Bush administration was attacked for being out of touch with reality and elevating ideology over facts. Democrats were irate (with some justification) that the Bush administration failed for so long to adjust our strategy to fit the deteriorating political and military situation in Iraq.

Now, the presidential contenders simply ignore the news altogether. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama seems interested in discussing recent developments. Neither has explained why their plan for immediate withdrawal would further our objectives. Instead, we get from Obama the vague suggestion for a “strike force” (which sounds like something from a B-movie plot: “General, send in the strike force!”) without mentioning the ground support such a force would require, or outlining its location and objectives. And I thought Democrats were opposed to unspecified military actions with ill-conceived missions.

The Washington Post editorial board has a modest conclusion about the fighting in Basra:

What the end of the fighting demonstrated is that Mr. Maliki’s government and army are not yet strong enough to decisively impose themselves by force in areas controlled by the Mahdi Army or other militias, at least not without the full support of U.S. ground forces. The fact that such support remains available to the government no doubt contributed to Mr. Sadr’s embrace of a cease-fire. By the same token, American withdrawal could precipitate a far bloodier conflict that, if won by the Mahdi Army, would be a major reversal for U.S. interests in the Middle East. At best, the battle of Basra will persuade the Shiite parties to fight for control over the city in upcoming provincial elections, rather than in the streets. But the fact that an Iraqi government commonly described as impotent and inert now is willing and able to fight Shiite militias is a step in the right direction.

This rather restrained view seems to align with available facts. You can quibble with it, but it is a responsible attempt to assess the facts, draw conclusions and elucidate lessons which might shape future action.

But there is none–absolutely none–of this analysis to be found among the Democratic presidential contenders or members of Congress. Facts at this point are irrelevant as they pursue a determined course of retreat.

It was not too long ago that the Bush administration was attacked for being out of touch with reality and elevating ideology over facts. Democrats were irate (with some justification) that the Bush administration failed for so long to adjust our strategy to fit the deteriorating political and military situation in Iraq.

Now, the presidential contenders simply ignore the news altogether. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama seems interested in discussing recent developments. Neither has explained why their plan for immediate withdrawal would further our objectives. Instead, we get from Obama the vague suggestion for a “strike force” (which sounds like something from a B-movie plot: “General, send in the strike force!”) without mentioning the ground support such a force would require, or outlining its location and objectives. And I thought Democrats were opposed to unspecified military actions with ill-conceived missions.

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Getting Basra Wrong

On Sunday, Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr called on Shiite militia members “to end all military actions in Basra and in all the provinces” and “to cooperate with the government to achieve security.” The New York Times thinks this is very bad news indeed—“a serious blow for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.” According to a story by Erica Goode and James Glanz in today’s Times, Iraqi forces are virtually helpless against the militias in Basra and Prime Minister Maliki is turning to Sadr to help him out of the jam. This means all sorts of apocalyptic things for the future of Iraq, as indicated by this:

Asked if the erosion of support for Mr. Maliki could cause his government to fall, Mr. Daoud [a former national security adviser and Shiite party leader] paused and said, “Everything is possible.”

Is it the “pause” that’s supposed to make that non-declaration seem ominous?

According to New York Sun Middle East columnist Nibras Kazimi, writing on his Talisman Gate blog, Goode and Glanz don’t simply have it wrong. Rather, we’re witnessing one of the greatest journalistic shell games in recent memory. On Sunday, Kazimi wrote:

Too bad the Mahdi Army is losing very badly. There were a rash of violent outbreaks here and there in Hillah Province and in al-Hamza in the last few days, but today the situation there is one where the Iraqi Army and police—the Scorpion Brigade in particular—are hunting down the Sadrists with a vengeance with the active help of the local population, according to a well-placed and influential source from Hillah.

Across Baghdad, the situation turned against the Mahdi Army prior to Muqtada al-Sadr’s muddled calls not to disarm on the one hand and to clear the streets on the other. Sadrists were breaking down in terms of logistics and coordination even before government troops had the wherewithal to rally and respond to the security challenges posed by these outlaws.

I’m not the only one to pick up on the clearer picture emerging out of Iraq: most of these charlatans posing as pundits and experts are not total imbeciles, just intellectual fakes, so they have enough sense to realize that the “meltdown” they were praying [for] has not materialized despite the best propaganda efforts of ‘Agent’ Glanz and the Associated Press. Now these talking heads are feverishly administering the necessary spin to fig-leaf why they seemingly got it so utterly wrong. They are either going with “Muqtada saved the day” or “The Americans and the British, i.e. the grown-ups, stepped in and changed Maliki’s diaper after he’d made a boo-boo”.

While Sadr has issued his ceasefire, there is no word on whether Prime Minister Maliki has agreed to Sadr’s request for lenience in dealing with Mahdi Army members. This hardly sounds like Sadr is calling the shots. In fact, if Kazimi is right, it seems like the discredited Sadr is trying desperately to deal himself back in to a game where unity and progress now trump the sectarian violence that is his strong suit.

On Sunday, Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr called on Shiite militia members “to end all military actions in Basra and in all the provinces” and “to cooperate with the government to achieve security.” The New York Times thinks this is very bad news indeed—“a serious blow for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.” According to a story by Erica Goode and James Glanz in today’s Times, Iraqi forces are virtually helpless against the militias in Basra and Prime Minister Maliki is turning to Sadr to help him out of the jam. This means all sorts of apocalyptic things for the future of Iraq, as indicated by this:

Asked if the erosion of support for Mr. Maliki could cause his government to fall, Mr. Daoud [a former national security adviser and Shiite party leader] paused and said, “Everything is possible.”

Is it the “pause” that’s supposed to make that non-declaration seem ominous?

According to New York Sun Middle East columnist Nibras Kazimi, writing on his Talisman Gate blog, Goode and Glanz don’t simply have it wrong. Rather, we’re witnessing one of the greatest journalistic shell games in recent memory. On Sunday, Kazimi wrote:

Too bad the Mahdi Army is losing very badly. There were a rash of violent outbreaks here and there in Hillah Province and in al-Hamza in the last few days, but today the situation there is one where the Iraqi Army and police—the Scorpion Brigade in particular—are hunting down the Sadrists with a vengeance with the active help of the local population, according to a well-placed and influential source from Hillah.

Across Baghdad, the situation turned against the Mahdi Army prior to Muqtada al-Sadr’s muddled calls not to disarm on the one hand and to clear the streets on the other. Sadrists were breaking down in terms of logistics and coordination even before government troops had the wherewithal to rally and respond to the security challenges posed by these outlaws.

I’m not the only one to pick up on the clearer picture emerging out of Iraq: most of these charlatans posing as pundits and experts are not total imbeciles, just intellectual fakes, so they have enough sense to realize that the “meltdown” they were praying [for] has not materialized despite the best propaganda efforts of ‘Agent’ Glanz and the Associated Press. Now these talking heads are feverishly administering the necessary spin to fig-leaf why they seemingly got it so utterly wrong. They are either going with “Muqtada saved the day” or “The Americans and the British, i.e. the grown-ups, stepped in and changed Maliki’s diaper after he’d made a boo-boo”.

While Sadr has issued his ceasefire, there is no word on whether Prime Minister Maliki has agreed to Sadr’s request for lenience in dealing with Mahdi Army members. This hardly sounds like Sadr is calling the shots. In fact, if Kazimi is right, it seems like the discredited Sadr is trying desperately to deal himself back in to a game where unity and progress now trump the sectarian violence that is his strong suit.

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Reuters’ Sadr Story Vanishes

Reuters, the news agency with a policy forbidding the word “terrorist” from their stories and a penchant for printing doctored photos as evidence of Israeli aggression, has done it again.

Yesterday, Reuters posted a story entitled “Sadr Expected to End Truce”, implying it was likely that Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr would end his Mahdi Army’s six-month ceasefire in Iraq. I can’t offer the URL of that story because once their cynical prediction was proved immediately wrong (today, Sadr announced that he’d be extending the ceasefire another six months) the link started bringing me to a new Reuters story entitled (surprise, surprise) “Iraqi Cleric Sadr Extends Militia Ceasefire.” Soon after that, the original headline disappeared from internet searches altogether. The only place on the web I’ve been able to find the old headline (which links to the new story) is way down in the comments section of the firedoglake blog.

For Reuters, flesh-and-blood events of global importance seem to be no more than malleable bits of code. Stories are offered, embellished, and pulled at their discretion. Moreover, this lack of regard for a news-hungry public reveals a consistent bias: deception is okay when expressing opposition to the hopes and aims of the U.S.

Reuters, the news agency with a policy forbidding the word “terrorist” from their stories and a penchant for printing doctored photos as evidence of Israeli aggression, has done it again.

Yesterday, Reuters posted a story entitled “Sadr Expected to End Truce”, implying it was likely that Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr would end his Mahdi Army’s six-month ceasefire in Iraq. I can’t offer the URL of that story because once their cynical prediction was proved immediately wrong (today, Sadr announced that he’d be extending the ceasefire another six months) the link started bringing me to a new Reuters story entitled (surprise, surprise) “Iraqi Cleric Sadr Extends Militia Ceasefire.” Soon after that, the original headline disappeared from internet searches altogether. The only place on the web I’ve been able to find the old headline (which links to the new story) is way down in the comments section of the firedoglake blog.

For Reuters, flesh-and-blood events of global importance seem to be no more than malleable bits of code. Stories are offered, embellished, and pulled at their discretion. Moreover, this lack of regard for a news-hungry public reveals a consistent bias: deception is okay when expressing opposition to the hopes and aims of the U.S.

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The Mahdi Army’s New Threat

In Iraq, a Mahdi Army spokesman is threatening to not renew the Shia militia’s six-month ceasefire with U.S. and Iraqi forces. The Seattle Times reports:

In a statement, Salah al-Obeidi charged that rival Shiite militias have infiltrated Iraq’s security forces and that some senior security officials remain in their jobs although they have been charged with human-rights offenses.
“This will force us to reconsider the decision to extend the cease-fire despite repeated public statements in the past that we will,” al-Obeidi said.

While Sunni Awakening groups continue to patrol their areas and lead raids on al Qaeda and insurgents, progress among Iraq’s Shia has been a more complicated affair. Since the Mahdi Army ceasefire, many Mahdi officials have coordinated anti-militia efforts with the U.S. or joined Iraqi security forces in the South. However, the good news is heavily tempered by pro-Iranian sentiment, sectarian self-determination, and violent rifts within the Shia community and with or without a formal statement, the threat of more fighting was always there.

In truth, Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army has been more of an indirect threat to U.S. forces since well before the ceasefire. Their immediate enemies were Baathists and Wahhabists. With both those parties being fought off by U.S. and Iraq forces, one question is: will an end to the ceasefire mean new attacks directly against U.S. forces or merely and end to Mahdi cooperation with them?

Sadr is hoping to become Ayatollah, and he’s used the ceasefire period to gain legitimacy. He’s seen how the country’s changed during the time he’s ordered guns down. Just yesterday Shias in Iraq’s police and security forces clamped down on a Shia doomsday cult in Basra. As connected as Sadr is, he knows that Iraqis aren’t going to stomach a breach in the progress that’s been made. He also knows that the bottom-up political progress will eventually translate into shared oil wealth, and if he’s interested in becoming an Ayatollah he’d be unwise to poison the well on a whim. The Mahdi Army has become more of a political force than a fighting force, and it’s unlikely that this threat will materialize as full-blown anti-American warfare anytime soon.

In Iraq, a Mahdi Army spokesman is threatening to not renew the Shia militia’s six-month ceasefire with U.S. and Iraqi forces. The Seattle Times reports:

In a statement, Salah al-Obeidi charged that rival Shiite militias have infiltrated Iraq’s security forces and that some senior security officials remain in their jobs although they have been charged with human-rights offenses.
“This will force us to reconsider the decision to extend the cease-fire despite repeated public statements in the past that we will,” al-Obeidi said.

While Sunni Awakening groups continue to patrol their areas and lead raids on al Qaeda and insurgents, progress among Iraq’s Shia has been a more complicated affair. Since the Mahdi Army ceasefire, many Mahdi officials have coordinated anti-militia efforts with the U.S. or joined Iraqi security forces in the South. However, the good news is heavily tempered by pro-Iranian sentiment, sectarian self-determination, and violent rifts within the Shia community and with or without a formal statement, the threat of more fighting was always there.

In truth, Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army has been more of an indirect threat to U.S. forces since well before the ceasefire. Their immediate enemies were Baathists and Wahhabists. With both those parties being fought off by U.S. and Iraq forces, one question is: will an end to the ceasefire mean new attacks directly against U.S. forces or merely and end to Mahdi cooperation with them?

Sadr is hoping to become Ayatollah, and he’s used the ceasefire period to gain legitimacy. He’s seen how the country’s changed during the time he’s ordered guns down. Just yesterday Shias in Iraq’s police and security forces clamped down on a Shia doomsday cult in Basra. As connected as Sadr is, he knows that Iraqis aren’t going to stomach a breach in the progress that’s been made. He also knows that the bottom-up political progress will eventually translate into shared oil wealth, and if he’s interested in becoming an Ayatollah he’d be unwise to poison the well on a whim. The Mahdi Army has become more of a political force than a fighting force, and it’s unlikely that this threat will materialize as full-blown anti-American warfare anytime soon.

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The Bravery of Iraqis

Iraqi Army soldiers have a terrible reputation for cowardice and corruption – especially in Baghdad – but it’s unfair to write them all off after reading the news out of Iraq’s capital Sunday. Three Iraqi Army soldiers tackled a suicide bomber at an Army Day parade and were killed when he exploded his vest.

While embedded with the United States Army and Marines I heard over and over again that the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have improved a lot in the past year. This is encouraging, on the one hand, but at the same time it is worrisome. If they are as bad now in some places as I’ve seen myself, they must have really been something in 2005.

At the War Eagle outpost in Baghdad’s Graya’at neighborhood, I was told by a military intelligence officer that the most likely reason we weren’t under mortar attack is because huge numbers of Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militiamen had infiltrated the ranks of Iraqi Army soldiers who shared the base with us.

A colonel at Camp Taji north of the city told me the U.S. Army doesn’t dare inform their Iraqi Army counterparts about sensitive operations until the very last minute because they don’t want infiltrators to alert the insurgents.

The Iraqi Police in Mushadah, near Taji, were more of a military force than a police force when I visited last July. As many as half were thought to be Al Qaeda operatives, and the other half were so scared they refused to go on patrols until a female American captain showed them up by going outside the station herself.

And this is the new and improved Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police of 2007 during General Petraeus’s surge. Progress in Iraq is relative. It’s hard to say if the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police could hold the country together by themselves in 2008. Personally, I doubt it. So do most American soldiers and Marines I’ve spoken to. The Iraqis certainly could not have held it together in 2005 or 2006.

The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police deserve kudos for progress, even so. And they deserve more credit for bravery than they’ve been getting. Iraqis are far more likely to be killed in combat than Americans due to their inferior equipment and lack of experience. And if the insurgents win the war, American soldiers and Marines get to go home. Iraqis who sided with the Americans in the army and police will have to face retribution alone, with little chance of escape, from the new regime.

And what of those three who threw themselves on a suicide bomber? They are hardly less brave than American soldiers. They are arguably as brave as the Americans who sacked the Al Qaeda hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, and sacrificed themselves so that others could live.

These Iraqis deserve recognition, and they deserved to be recognized by their names. Yet I could not find their names cited in any media articles. All three of their names generate zero hits using Google at the time of this writing. I had to contact Baghdad myself to find out who they were. Lieutenant Colonel James Hutton was kind enough to pass their names on.

Iraq between the time of the initial invasion and 2007 was easily as nasty a place as Lebanon was during the 1980s, and the conflict is eerily similar. Thomas Friedman made a haunting observation about anonymous death during the civil war in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem: “Death had no echo in Beirut. No one’s life seemed to leave any mark on the city or reverberate in its ear.” Then he quoted a young woman. “In the United States if you die in a car accident, at least your name gets mentioned on television,” she said. “Here they don’t even mention your name anymore. They just say ‘thirty people died.’ Well, what thirty people? They don’t even bother to give their names. At least say their names. I want to feel that I was something more than a body when I die.”

Here are the names of the three brave Iraqis who hurled themselves on an exploding suicide bomber.

Malik Abdul Ghanem
Asa’ad Hussein Ali
Abdul-Hamza Abdul-Hassan Rissan

They were friends the Americans and Iraqis did not know we had until they were gone.

Iraqi Army soldiers have a terrible reputation for cowardice and corruption – especially in Baghdad – but it’s unfair to write them all off after reading the news out of Iraq’s capital Sunday. Three Iraqi Army soldiers tackled a suicide bomber at an Army Day parade and were killed when he exploded his vest.

While embedded with the United States Army and Marines I heard over and over again that the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have improved a lot in the past year. This is encouraging, on the one hand, but at the same time it is worrisome. If they are as bad now in some places as I’ve seen myself, they must have really been something in 2005.

At the War Eagle outpost in Baghdad’s Graya’at neighborhood, I was told by a military intelligence officer that the most likely reason we weren’t under mortar attack is because huge numbers of Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militiamen had infiltrated the ranks of Iraqi Army soldiers who shared the base with us.

A colonel at Camp Taji north of the city told me the U.S. Army doesn’t dare inform their Iraqi Army counterparts about sensitive operations until the very last minute because they don’t want infiltrators to alert the insurgents.

The Iraqi Police in Mushadah, near Taji, were more of a military force than a police force when I visited last July. As many as half were thought to be Al Qaeda operatives, and the other half were so scared they refused to go on patrols until a female American captain showed them up by going outside the station herself.

And this is the new and improved Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police of 2007 during General Petraeus’s surge. Progress in Iraq is relative. It’s hard to say if the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police could hold the country together by themselves in 2008. Personally, I doubt it. So do most American soldiers and Marines I’ve spoken to. The Iraqis certainly could not have held it together in 2005 or 2006.

The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police deserve kudos for progress, even so. And they deserve more credit for bravery than they’ve been getting. Iraqis are far more likely to be killed in combat than Americans due to their inferior equipment and lack of experience. And if the insurgents win the war, American soldiers and Marines get to go home. Iraqis who sided with the Americans in the army and police will have to face retribution alone, with little chance of escape, from the new regime.

And what of those three who threw themselves on a suicide bomber? They are hardly less brave than American soldiers. They are arguably as brave as the Americans who sacked the Al Qaeda hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, and sacrificed themselves so that others could live.

These Iraqis deserve recognition, and they deserved to be recognized by their names. Yet I could not find their names cited in any media articles. All three of their names generate zero hits using Google at the time of this writing. I had to contact Baghdad myself to find out who they were. Lieutenant Colonel James Hutton was kind enough to pass their names on.

Iraq between the time of the initial invasion and 2007 was easily as nasty a place as Lebanon was during the 1980s, and the conflict is eerily similar. Thomas Friedman made a haunting observation about anonymous death during the civil war in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem: “Death had no echo in Beirut. No one’s life seemed to leave any mark on the city or reverberate in its ear.” Then he quoted a young woman. “In the United States if you die in a car accident, at least your name gets mentioned on television,” she said. “Here they don’t even mention your name anymore. They just say ‘thirty people died.’ Well, what thirty people? They don’t even bother to give their names. At least say their names. I want to feel that I was something more than a body when I die.”

Here are the names of the three brave Iraqis who hurled themselves on an exploding suicide bomber.

Malik Abdul Ghanem
Asa’ad Hussein Ali
Abdul-Hamza Abdul-Hassan Rissan

They were friends the Americans and Iraqis did not know we had until they were gone.

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The Shia Awakening

After returning to the U.S. from my summer trip to Baghdad and Ramadi, I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News that warned against bingeing on optimism in the wake of the surge. I wrote this despite the dramatic turnaround in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The abject defeat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq in and around Anbar’s capital of Ramadi is stunning, but local. The fight still rages on elsewhere, and in each place it is different. In early 2007, Ramadi was the most violent city in all of Iraq. It was also, counterintuitively, the easiest city to win.

Al Qaeda had seized it and declared it the capital of their so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.” Local tribal leaders and civilians initially welcomed al Qaeda as liberators against the hated American occupiers, but later rejected them after al Qaeda behaved like…al Qaeda, and launched a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against everyone who opposed them. “It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me.

Zarqawi’s lieutenants make up a relatively small percentage of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but they are by far the most psychotic and destructive. No one should be surprised that they were expelled from Anbar. They went at the Iraqis with car bombs and kitchen knives. They sawed off the heads of children as well as adults. They murdered entire families just for making eye contact with American soldiers. The Iraqis in Ramadi had little choice but to form an alliance with Americans, in order to purge these killers from their lands.

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After returning to the U.S. from my summer trip to Baghdad and Ramadi, I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News that warned against bingeing on optimism in the wake of the surge. I wrote this despite the dramatic turnaround in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The abject defeat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq in and around Anbar’s capital of Ramadi is stunning, but local. The fight still rages on elsewhere, and in each place it is different. In early 2007, Ramadi was the most violent city in all of Iraq. It was also, counterintuitively, the easiest city to win.

Al Qaeda had seized it and declared it the capital of their so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.” Local tribal leaders and civilians initially welcomed al Qaeda as liberators against the hated American occupiers, but later rejected them after al Qaeda behaved like…al Qaeda, and launched a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against everyone who opposed them. “It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me.

Zarqawi’s lieutenants make up a relatively small percentage of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but they are by far the most psychotic and destructive. No one should be surprised that they were expelled from Anbar. They went at the Iraqis with car bombs and kitchen knives. They sawed off the heads of children as well as adults. They murdered entire families just for making eye contact with American soldiers. The Iraqis in Ramadi had little choice but to form an alliance with Americans, in order to purge these killers from their lands.

However, as I wrote in late August, “what worked in Ramadi might not work in Baghdad. [Moqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shia] Mahdi Army’s relative moderation, compared with al Qaeda’s brutality, prevents it from being rejected by the entire society.”

I may have been too pessimistic and given Sadr’s militia more credit than it deserves.

The New York Times reported last week that many Shias in Baghdad, including some tribal sheikhs, are now turning against the Mahdi Army and working with the Americans to evict them. Sadr’s base is collapsing from right underneath him, and it’s a direct result of the successful assault on radical Sunnis by General Petraeus’s surge forces and the Mahdi Army itself.

The Mahdi Army picked up substantial local support thanks to its defense of Shias from Sunni insurgents and death squads. Neither the American soldiers nor the Iraqi security forces were able to secure the streets of the neighborhoods, so Sadr’s militia was called on for the job. Many portions of Baghdad have since been purged of Sunni extremists, partly due to the notorious sectarian “cleansing” and population transfers. The Mahdi Army is a victim of its own success, in a way: it has outlived its perceived usefulness and has degenerated into an ideology-free gang of murderous street thugs who do not want to let go of power. A militia need not be as deranged as al Qaeda to wear out its welcome, even in Baghdad.

Sadr’s army has been opposed by a substantial number of Shias all along. The new opposition comes from his base, and includes several sheikhs who supported him not long ago.

It’s hard for Americans to appreciate just how much power sheikhs have in Iraq. What they say goes. I spent a week in the Graya’at neighborhood of Baghdad, where every sheikh had come around to the American side. Earlier this year they insisted that not a single shot shall be fired at American soldiers, and not a single shot has been fired since. When they say it’s time to join Moqtada al-Sadr, or it’s time to join the Americans, nearly every person under their authority does what they say.

In the parts of Iraq where the locals turn against the insurgents en masse, it is only a matter of time before the insurgents are finished. Civilians phone in actionable intelligence on the locations of safe houses, weapons caches, IED’s, and everything else.

The radical Sunnis in Iraq are the most vicious. It is logical, then, that they are being defeated first. Extremist Shias have been tougher because they are more moderate, as well as more numerous. But defeating Sunni insurgents knocks out support from under the radical Shias. If you’re looking for a reason to hope in Iraq, that is it.

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Acknowledging the “Anbar Awakening”

I have written elsewhere about Peter Bergen’s essay in the New Republic, “War of Error: How Osama Bin Laden Beat George W. Bush.” Here I want to address one particular charge made by Bergen:

If, as the president explained in a speech last year, the United States is today engaged “in the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas. Garrett [Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent], for one, understands why. “Interrogation techniques that violate human decency…can weaken others supporting us in fighting terrorism and can actually create more enemies,” he says. In other words, Bush’s legal strategy in the war on terrorism has been counterproductive. And the consequences for our safety are real.

Having stated that the Bush policies are weakening others supporting us in fighting terrorism, Mr. Bergen, two paragraphs later, writes about the impressive level of cooperation we are witnessing:

[C]ooperation between U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies has generally been strong since September 11. For instance, al Qaeda’s plot to bring down ten U.S. airliners was disrupted last year by the joint work of U.S., British, and Pakistani intelligence services.

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I have written elsewhere about Peter Bergen’s essay in the New Republic, “War of Error: How Osama Bin Laden Beat George W. Bush.” Here I want to address one particular charge made by Bergen:

If, as the president explained in a speech last year, the United States is today engaged “in the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas. Garrett [Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent], for one, understands why. “Interrogation techniques that violate human decency…can weaken others supporting us in fighting terrorism and can actually create more enemies,” he says. In other words, Bush’s legal strategy in the war on terrorism has been counterproductive. And the consequences for our safety are real.

Having stated that the Bush policies are weakening others supporting us in fighting terrorism, Mr. Bergen, two paragraphs later, writes about the impressive level of cooperation we are witnessing:

[C]ooperation between U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies has generally been strong since September 11. For instance, al Qaeda’s plot to bring down ten U.S. airliners was disrupted last year by the joint work of U.S., British, and Pakistani intelligence services.

We are in fact seeing unprecedented international cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence, military action, and diplomacy. Nations may oppose our policies on interrogation, but there’s little evidence this opposition is undermining day-to-day efforts to combat jihadists. The reason should be obvious: other nations have a profound self-interest in defeating bin Ladenism. And so despite our differences, we have achieved unprecedented levels of integrated planning across scores of countries.

More fundamentally, though, I dissent from Bergen’s assertion that “right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas.” In fact, the most important ideological development in the last year is that the Sunni population in Iraq has turned against al Qaeda’s ideology and concomitant brutality. The “Anbar Awakening,” which is spreading to other regions in Iraq, is a sign of Muslims’ rejecting radical Islamist ideology. And just last week in the New York Times we read about Shia in Baghdad turning against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army:

“Everything is changing,” said Ali, a businessman in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Ur, in eastern Baghdad…. “Now in our area for the first time everyone say, ‘To hell with Mahdi Army.’ Not loudly on the street, but between friends, between families. Every man, every woman, say that.”

This doesn’t mean we have decisively won the “war of ideas” in the Islamic world; that clash is still unfolding and will for some time to come. But Bergen’s claim that we are losing is belied by the most significant and encouraging ideological development we have seen in a great long while. (In his almost 6,000 word essay, Bergen devotes only a paragraph, and a qualified one at that, to the “Anbar Awakening.”) Those who believe winning the (figurative) war of ideas is paramount might consider doing all they can to help us to win the (literal) war in Iraq. After all, the best way to discredit militant Islam as an ideology is to defeat those who are taking up the sword in its name.

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