Commentary Magazine


Topic: Maliki government

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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Wriggling Out?

Obama (in pithy terms) and his supporters in the blogosphere (in laborious ones) have tried to “clarify” his “unconditional talks with despots” position. McCain surrogates have pushed back. And today the McCain camp issued a lengthy response pointing out that Obama has backtracked on his desire to meet unconditionally with dictators, and ties Obama’s lack of experience to faulty judgement on Iraq:

He said that General Petraeus’ new strategy would not reduce sectarian violence, but would worsen it. He was wrong. He said the dynamics in Iraq would not change as a result of the ‘surge.’ He was wrong. One year ago, he voted to cut off all funds for our forces fighting extremists in Iraq. He was wrong. Sectarian violence has been dramatically reduced, Sunnis in Anbar province and throughout Iraq are cooperating in fighting al Qaeda in Iraq, and Shi’ite extremist militias no longer control Basra — the Maliki government and its forces do. British and Iraqi forces now move freely in areas that were controlled by Iranian-backed militias. The fight against al Qaeda in Mosul is succeeding in further weakening that deadly terrorist group, and many key leaders have been killed or captured. As General Petraeus said last month, ‘As we combat AQI we must remember that doing so not only reduces a major source of instability in Iraq, it also weakens an organization that Al Qaeda’s senior leaders view as a tool to spread its influence and foment regional instability.’ Iraqi forces have moved unopposed into Sadr City, a development the New York Times characterized today as a ‘dramatic turnaround’ as the government of Prime Minister Maliki ‘advanced its goal of establishing sovereignty and curtailing the powers of the militias.’

That argument may be entirely accurate. But politically it’s very difficult. Nevertheless, it’s the beginning of an essential debate. Whether we will now hear Obama walk back his promise to withdraw U.S. troops unconditionally and immediately from Iraq–just as he has had to walk back his promise of unconditional talks with terror states–remains to be seen.

Obama (in pithy terms) and his supporters in the blogosphere (in laborious ones) have tried to “clarify” his “unconditional talks with despots” position. McCain surrogates have pushed back. And today the McCain camp issued a lengthy response pointing out that Obama has backtracked on his desire to meet unconditionally with dictators, and ties Obama’s lack of experience to faulty judgement on Iraq:

He said that General Petraeus’ new strategy would not reduce sectarian violence, but would worsen it. He was wrong. He said the dynamics in Iraq would not change as a result of the ‘surge.’ He was wrong. One year ago, he voted to cut off all funds for our forces fighting extremists in Iraq. He was wrong. Sectarian violence has been dramatically reduced, Sunnis in Anbar province and throughout Iraq are cooperating in fighting al Qaeda in Iraq, and Shi’ite extremist militias no longer control Basra — the Maliki government and its forces do. British and Iraqi forces now move freely in areas that were controlled by Iranian-backed militias. The fight against al Qaeda in Mosul is succeeding in further weakening that deadly terrorist group, and many key leaders have been killed or captured. As General Petraeus said last month, ‘As we combat AQI we must remember that doing so not only reduces a major source of instability in Iraq, it also weakens an organization that Al Qaeda’s senior leaders view as a tool to spread its influence and foment regional instability.’ Iraqi forces have moved unopposed into Sadr City, a development the New York Times characterized today as a ‘dramatic turnaround’ as the government of Prime Minister Maliki ‘advanced its goal of establishing sovereignty and curtailing the powers of the militias.’

That argument may be entirely accurate. But politically it’s very difficult. Nevertheless, it’s the beginning of an essential debate. Whether we will now hear Obama walk back his promise to withdraw U.S. troops unconditionally and immediately from Iraq–just as he has had to walk back his promise of unconditional talks with terror states–remains to be seen.

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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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Yes, That Operation Against Sadr’s Militia Was Just a Disaster, Wasn’t It?

James Glanz of the New York Times, the chief peddler of the claim that the Iraqi government’s attack on the militia controlled by goon cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was a horrifying failures that called the entire surge into question, today files this dispatch from Baghdad:

 Iraq’s largest Sunni bloc has agreed to return to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s cabinet after a nine-month boycott, several Sunni leaders said on Thursday, citing a recently passed amnesty law and the Maliki government’s crackdown on Shiite militias as reasons for the move….[S]uch a return would represent a major political victory for Mr. Maliki in the midst of a military operation that has at times been criticized as poorly planned and fraught with risk.

To sum up, then. The Shiite government proved itself willing and able to take on the most powerful Shiite militia. As a result, it has brought the Sunni bloc back into the government, which is a major step on the road to national reconciliation. And this was made possible by the passage of an amnesty law that is a key step in the benchmarks established to gauge Iraq’s political progress.

James Glanz, you got some ‘splainin’ to do…

James Glanz of the New York Times, the chief peddler of the claim that the Iraqi government’s attack on the militia controlled by goon cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was a horrifying failures that called the entire surge into question, today files this dispatch from Baghdad:

 Iraq’s largest Sunni bloc has agreed to return to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s cabinet after a nine-month boycott, several Sunni leaders said on Thursday, citing a recently passed amnesty law and the Maliki government’s crackdown on Shiite militias as reasons for the move….[S]uch a return would represent a major political victory for Mr. Maliki in the midst of a military operation that has at times been criticized as poorly planned and fraught with risk.

To sum up, then. The Shiite government proved itself willing and able to take on the most powerful Shiite militia. As a result, it has brought the Sunni bloc back into the government, which is a major step on the road to national reconciliation. And this was made possible by the passage of an amnesty law that is a key step in the benchmarks established to gauge Iraq’s political progress.

James Glanz, you got some ‘splainin’ to do…

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More on The Dems’ Basra Babble

Jennifer: You are, of course, correct. And the fact that the Maliki government is taking on the Shi’iite militias will be buried by the same MSM that wrote off Iraq as a crude sectarian pie chart, the same MSM that was apoplectic over the supposed Shi’a sympathy on display when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Iraq a month ago. “The Shi’a Revival” school of America-scolding reigns supreme these days. We will hear about every aspect of the fighting (American forces’ involvement, number of casualties, etc.) except the one that speaks most to what Obama calls “the underlying tensions that exist in Iraq.”

Of course when Obama finds out that Moktada al-Sadr is giving orders from Iran, he’ll point to that as evidence that we need to be out of Iraq because our real enemies are elsewhere. There’s no development that can’t be turned inside out to show that the war is wrong.

Jennifer: You are, of course, correct. And the fact that the Maliki government is taking on the Shi’iite militias will be buried by the same MSM that wrote off Iraq as a crude sectarian pie chart, the same MSM that was apoplectic over the supposed Shi’a sympathy on display when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Iraq a month ago. “The Shi’a Revival” school of America-scolding reigns supreme these days. We will hear about every aspect of the fighting (American forces’ involvement, number of casualties, etc.) except the one that speaks most to what Obama calls “the underlying tensions that exist in Iraq.”

Of course when Obama finds out that Moktada al-Sadr is giving orders from Iran, he’ll point to that as evidence that we need to be out of Iraq because our real enemies are elsewhere. There’s no development that can’t be turned inside out to show that the war is wrong.

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The Kagans on Iraq

Like Abe Greenwald, I was struck by the New York Times‘ article on Tuesday that described the growing disenchantment of young Iraqis with the clerics.  And I share his assessment that it offers the hope of vindication for the Bush Doctrine.  History may come to see the Iraqi insurgency as the natural result of lifting the lid off of the Iraqi kettle: the pressure built up by Saddam, and fueled by Al Qaeda Iraq, had to blow off before a reaction, aided by the remarkable campaign led by General Petraeus, set in.

It is far too soon to start claiming victory.  The Times‘ story is based on a mere forty interviews, and as Frederick and Kimberly Kagan point out in their latest piece in the Weekly Standard, on “The Patton of Counterinsurgency,” “the war is still very much ongoing and victory is by no means assured.”  But the Kagans’ article also draws attention to the same trends the Times has discovered.  According to them, while there is widespread frustration with the Maliki government:

that frustration is increasingly expressed not simply as resentment of Maliki and his allies, but in a rejection of clerical government (the dominant Shia party south of Baghdad is controlled by a turbaned cleric, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim); of Iranian influence; and of regionalism, factionalism, and sectarianism. Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, are increasingly defining themselves as Iraqis, that is to say Arabs, rather than Sunnis or Shia.

That last sentence is the crucial one.  Across the Middle East, surveys repeatedly show that many people describe themselves as Muslim first and as a nationality second.  In Egypt in 2000, for instance, 80 percent of those surveyed replied that, above all, they were Muslim.   This is quite compatible with the reality that most Muslims are not Islamists.  Nor does anyone in the Middle East need to place the state before God to achieve democracy: state-worship is never desirable.

But as long as faith squeezes nationalism out of the public square, the various body politics of the region will be weak and divided, prone to manipulation by dictators and terrorists.  That is exactly what happened in Iraq.  Abe describes Iraq as moving towards a new faith in freedom. If the Times and the Kagans are right, it is more fundamental than that: it is the rise of a shared national identity, which is what makes freedom possible.

Like Abe Greenwald, I was struck by the New York Times‘ article on Tuesday that described the growing disenchantment of young Iraqis with the clerics.  And I share his assessment that it offers the hope of vindication for the Bush Doctrine.  History may come to see the Iraqi insurgency as the natural result of lifting the lid off of the Iraqi kettle: the pressure built up by Saddam, and fueled by Al Qaeda Iraq, had to blow off before a reaction, aided by the remarkable campaign led by General Petraeus, set in.

It is far too soon to start claiming victory.  The Times‘ story is based on a mere forty interviews, and as Frederick and Kimberly Kagan point out in their latest piece in the Weekly Standard, on “The Patton of Counterinsurgency,” “the war is still very much ongoing and victory is by no means assured.”  But the Kagans’ article also draws attention to the same trends the Times has discovered.  According to them, while there is widespread frustration with the Maliki government:

that frustration is increasingly expressed not simply as resentment of Maliki and his allies, but in a rejection of clerical government (the dominant Shia party south of Baghdad is controlled by a turbaned cleric, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim); of Iranian influence; and of regionalism, factionalism, and sectarianism. Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, are increasingly defining themselves as Iraqis, that is to say Arabs, rather than Sunnis or Shia.

That last sentence is the crucial one.  Across the Middle East, surveys repeatedly show that many people describe themselves as Muslim first and as a nationality second.  In Egypt in 2000, for instance, 80 percent of those surveyed replied that, above all, they were Muslim.   This is quite compatible with the reality that most Muslims are not Islamists.  Nor does anyone in the Middle East need to place the state before God to achieve democracy: state-worship is never desirable.

But as long as faith squeezes nationalism out of the public square, the various body politics of the region will be weak and divided, prone to manipulation by dictators and terrorists.  That is exactly what happened in Iraq.  Abe describes Iraq as moving towards a new faith in freedom. If the Times and the Kagans are right, it is more fundamental than that: it is the rise of a shared national identity, which is what makes freedom possible.

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The Walls of Baghdad

Confusion persists about the erection of walls in Baghdad. Some critics of this joint Iraqi-U.S. military project are raising the specter of the Berlin Wall or of a West Bank-style barrier separating Sunnis and Shiites. Reacting to such criticism, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced, while attending a meeting in Cairo, that he did not want to see a twelve-foot-high wall built around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah.

Odds are, however, that the building of walls will persist, though most of them will be made up of shorter, three-foot-tall “Jersey” barriers rather than the taller “Texas” barriers that stretch twelve feet high. Most American and Iraqi security officials are convinced that the barriers are the way to go. (In fact, in one Baghdad meeting recently, I listened to an Iraqi general ask for taller barriers to go in faster.) An increasing number of ordinary Iraqis agree.

It’s not hard to see why: Concrete saves lives by impeding the movement of terrorists. In fact, as Linda Robinson reports in U.S. News & World Report, last week’s car bombing of the Sadriya market, which killed over a hundred people, might have been averted had not local complaints led Iraqi security officials to remove several Texas barriers arrayed around the market prior to the blast.

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Confusion persists about the erection of walls in Baghdad. Some critics of this joint Iraqi-U.S. military project are raising the specter of the Berlin Wall or of a West Bank-style barrier separating Sunnis and Shiites. Reacting to such criticism, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced, while attending a meeting in Cairo, that he did not want to see a twelve-foot-high wall built around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah.

Odds are, however, that the building of walls will persist, though most of them will be made up of shorter, three-foot-tall “Jersey” barriers rather than the taller “Texas” barriers that stretch twelve feet high. Most American and Iraqi security officials are convinced that the barriers are the way to go. (In fact, in one Baghdad meeting recently, I listened to an Iraqi general ask for taller barriers to go in faster.) An increasing number of ordinary Iraqis agree.

It’s not hard to see why: Concrete saves lives by impeding the movement of terrorists. In fact, as Linda Robinson reports in U.S. News & World Report, last week’s car bombing of the Sadriya market, which killed over a hundred people, might have been averted had not local complaints led Iraqi security officials to remove several Texas barriers arrayed around the market prior to the blast.

The point of these barriers isn’t to create a dividing line between Sunnis and Shiites, although admittedly that would be their effect in some places. The real point is to allow Iraqi and American security forces to keep a neighborhood free of terrorists once it has been cleared. Concrete barriers limit movement, channeling cars and pedestrians through a handful of checkpoints (known formally as ECP’s, or entry control points). Security personnel manning those checkpoints can turn away anyone who doesn’t have any business being in the neighborhood.

And how will they know who belongs and who doesn’t? In order to make this policy effective, officials or soldiers need to canvas the neighborhood, gathering census-style data about every household. It would help tremendously if Iraq launched a formal census and issued biometric identity cards to everyone. Such a step is under discussion by the Maliki government, but don’t hold your breath—it won’t happen anytime soon. Even short of such a solution, U.S. and Iraqi security forces are already improvising population surveys in their areas using handheld computers.

The whole process ought to be familiar to students of counterinsurgency. It is, in essence, an update of the old plan known as “concentration” zones or camps. The latter name causes understandable confusion, since we’re not talking about extermination camps of the kind that Hitler built, but rather of settlements where locals can be moved to live under guard, thereby preventing insurgent infiltration. The British used this strategy in the Boer war, the Americans during the Philippine war, and many other powers took similar steps in many other conflicts. In Vietnam they were known as “strategic hamlets.”

This type of massive population movement is not practical today given Iraq’s dense urban environment and nationalist sensitivities, but concrete barriers and tamper-proof identity cards can achieve some of the same result. There’s nothing nefarious about the process. It’s Counterinsurgency 101. The only wonder is that it’s taken so long for this obvious strategy to be implemented.

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