Commentary Magazine


Topic: Moqtada al-Sadr

The Race to Baghdad

In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Americans think Iran has too much influence in Iraq. Sunnis, in both Iraq and the larger region, increasingly think Iran has too much influence there — and that’s what matters to developments on the ground. Iraqi Sunnis have friends in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but they are also a natural recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. A Sunni revolt against Iranian influence will not be carried out in the Iraqi editorial pages.

The pace of events has accelerated in the last two weeks. Iraq has been without a governing coalition since March, but on October 1, radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr — who has lived in Iran since 2007, studying with the country’s most senior clerics — announced his backing of Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister and head of the caretaker government. The U.S. has asked Maliki to distance himself from Sadr as a condition of continued American support. But things aren’t that simple, primarily because President Obama has made it so clear that American support to an Iraqi government doesn’t mean what it meant two years ago. Obama has declared combat “over” in Iraq and is withdrawing troops as he promised. To function independently, however, what Maliki needs is the guarantee of active U.S. force at his back — and that is precisely what Obama is busy removing.

The UK Guardian has a remarkably detailed article from the weekend outlining the collusion of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in the Maliki-Sadr hook-up. (See companion piece here.) I’m routinely somewhat skeptical of Guardian stories, but in addition to its extensive detail, this one is bolstered by echoes in the Arabic press of the energetic shuttle diplomacy by the principal actors. The reaction from the region’s loose Sunni coalition certainly seems to validate the Guardian’s facts; as outlined by the Al-Ahram piece linked at the top, Iraqi Sunnis have kicked into overdrive a campaign for support from the Sunni nations (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey).

It’s against this background that the defection to al-Qaeda of the “Anbar Awakening” Sunnis must be understood. Almost every nation in the Middle East is trying to “fix” the outcome in Iraq — a reality that is largely invisible to Americans, but is one of the two main factors in the Sunni defection. The other is the perception that Obama’s America is inert and irrelevant to the power competition in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran has launched an aggressive, activist phase in its regional policy, a trend amplified by Ahmadinejad’s triumphal visit to Lebanon last week. The U.S. could have averted the visit; that it did not has reinforced our Obama-era image of feckless passivity at the worst possible times.

According to the Guardian, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s condition for supporting the Maliki-Sadr coalition is a guarantee that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq in 2011. In the absence of clear, assertive U.S. policy, we will find ourselves increasingly boxed in by the plans of opponents who want to make our policy for us. In many cases, the opponents will be terrorists.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Americans think Iran has too much influence in Iraq. Sunnis, in both Iraq and the larger region, increasingly think Iran has too much influence there — and that’s what matters to developments on the ground. Iraqi Sunnis have friends in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but they are also a natural recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. A Sunni revolt against Iranian influence will not be carried out in the Iraqi editorial pages.

The pace of events has accelerated in the last two weeks. Iraq has been without a governing coalition since March, but on October 1, radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr — who has lived in Iran since 2007, studying with the country’s most senior clerics — announced his backing of Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister and head of the caretaker government. The U.S. has asked Maliki to distance himself from Sadr as a condition of continued American support. But things aren’t that simple, primarily because President Obama has made it so clear that American support to an Iraqi government doesn’t mean what it meant two years ago. Obama has declared combat “over” in Iraq and is withdrawing troops as he promised. To function independently, however, what Maliki needs is the guarantee of active U.S. force at his back — and that is precisely what Obama is busy removing.

The UK Guardian has a remarkably detailed article from the weekend outlining the collusion of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in the Maliki-Sadr hook-up. (See companion piece here.) I’m routinely somewhat skeptical of Guardian stories, but in addition to its extensive detail, this one is bolstered by echoes in the Arabic press of the energetic shuttle diplomacy by the principal actors. The reaction from the region’s loose Sunni coalition certainly seems to validate the Guardian’s facts; as outlined by the Al-Ahram piece linked at the top, Iraqi Sunnis have kicked into overdrive a campaign for support from the Sunni nations (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey).

It’s against this background that the defection to al-Qaeda of the “Anbar Awakening” Sunnis must be understood. Almost every nation in the Middle East is trying to “fix” the outcome in Iraq — a reality that is largely invisible to Americans, but is one of the two main factors in the Sunni defection. The other is the perception that Obama’s America is inert and irrelevant to the power competition in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran has launched an aggressive, activist phase in its regional policy, a trend amplified by Ahmadinejad’s triumphal visit to Lebanon last week. The U.S. could have averted the visit; that it did not has reinforced our Obama-era image of feckless passivity at the worst possible times.

According to the Guardian, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s condition for supporting the Maliki-Sadr coalition is a guarantee that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq in 2011. In the absence of clear, assertive U.S. policy, we will find ourselves increasingly boxed in by the plans of opponents who want to make our policy for us. In many cases, the opponents will be terrorists.

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Iraq’s Losers

David Ignatius and Kori Schake make a good point about the Iraqi election results: the big loser, at least for now, is Iran. Ignatius notes how hard the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force worked to derail the electoral ambitions of Ayad Allawi and to engineer a victory for the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite religious combination of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrists. Iran was widely seen as responsible for the De-Baathification Commission’s attempts to disqualify many Sunni, secular candidates, and, Ignatius reports, “A U.S. military commander told me in February that Iran was sending $9 million a month to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and $8 million a month to the political party of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.”

Obviously the Iranian strategy failed, as Allawi’s Iraqiya slate came out the top vote-getter with 91 parliamentary seats, followed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition with 89 seats. The Iraqi National Alliance was a distant third with 75 seats.

As Schake notes, the results suggest that “Iraqi voters don’t want Iran running their government or having sway in their society.” Allawi was the most anti-Iranian candidate. Maliki may well have lost votes because, writes Schake, he “is seen — rightly or wrongly — as more susceptible to Iranian influence.”

These are all, of course, only preliminary conclusions. It is still possible that Iran may regain the edge in post-election camel-trading that it lost in the actual vote. Allawi will struggle to form a government, and if he fails, Maliki will get a shot. Both sides have an obvious incentive to woo at least one of the Shiite religious parties by making who knows what kinds of concessions. The obvious alternative would be for Maliki and Allawi to form their own coalition — a nationalist unity government –but that would be hard to pull off because they can’t stand each other.

Stay tuned. It’s hard to predict what will happen. In some ways, that is the highest tribute we can pay to Iraq. In how many other countries in the Middle East is it so hard to know in advance who will rule after an election? In most countries, the voting is a mere formality to ratify the authoritarian status quo. Not in Iraq. It is emerging as a genuine democracy, but it now faces a major test. As has been noted by many experts, the true test of a political system is whether power can shift peacefully from one party to another. It will be the reaction of the losers, more than the winners, that will set the tone in Iraqi politics and help determine the ultimate success or failure of its democratic experiment.

David Ignatius and Kori Schake make a good point about the Iraqi election results: the big loser, at least for now, is Iran. Ignatius notes how hard the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force worked to derail the electoral ambitions of Ayad Allawi and to engineer a victory for the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite religious combination of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrists. Iran was widely seen as responsible for the De-Baathification Commission’s attempts to disqualify many Sunni, secular candidates, and, Ignatius reports, “A U.S. military commander told me in February that Iran was sending $9 million a month to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and $8 million a month to the political party of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.”

Obviously the Iranian strategy failed, as Allawi’s Iraqiya slate came out the top vote-getter with 91 parliamentary seats, followed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition with 89 seats. The Iraqi National Alliance was a distant third with 75 seats.

As Schake notes, the results suggest that “Iraqi voters don’t want Iran running their government or having sway in their society.” Allawi was the most anti-Iranian candidate. Maliki may well have lost votes because, writes Schake, he “is seen — rightly or wrongly — as more susceptible to Iranian influence.”

These are all, of course, only preliminary conclusions. It is still possible that Iran may regain the edge in post-election camel-trading that it lost in the actual vote. Allawi will struggle to form a government, and if he fails, Maliki will get a shot. Both sides have an obvious incentive to woo at least one of the Shiite religious parties by making who knows what kinds of concessions. The obvious alternative would be for Maliki and Allawi to form their own coalition — a nationalist unity government –but that would be hard to pull off because they can’t stand each other.

Stay tuned. It’s hard to predict what will happen. In some ways, that is the highest tribute we can pay to Iraq. In how many other countries in the Middle East is it so hard to know in advance who will rule after an election? In most countries, the voting is a mere formality to ratify the authoritarian status quo. Not in Iraq. It is emerging as a genuine democracy, but it now faces a major test. As has been noted by many experts, the true test of a political system is whether power can shift peacefully from one party to another. It will be the reaction of the losers, more than the winners, that will set the tone in Iraqi politics and help determine the ultimate success or failure of its democratic experiment.

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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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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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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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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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Gaza and the Green Zone

Palestinian rockets have been falling on the Israeli town of Sderot since 2000. So far, fourteen Israelis have been killed. And the rockets keep coming, some of them reaching further into Israel, hitting the port city of Ashkelon. Neither the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, nor its own air-strikes and limited incursions has managed to suppress the barrage. What should Israel do?

Worldwide pressure is growing on it to negotiate with Hamas. Jimmy Carter is leading the way. But whether it is wise to talk directly or indirectly with a terrorist organization sworn to one’s own destruction is an open question that Israelis will have to answer for themselves.

While thinking about that, they might look at the U.S.-Iraqi experience protecting the Green Zone in Baghdad. Like Sderot, the Green Zone is adjacent to a densely populated slum much like Gaza, controlled by radical Arabs — Sadr City, the territory of the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Some 697 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired on the Green Zone from this area since March 23 alone. Only 114 hit the Green Zone, but U.S. coalition forces were struck by 291 of them.

Coalition forces have now managed to suppress the fire. “Attacks On Green Zone Drop Sharply, U.S. Says” is the headline of a story in today’s Washington Post.

U.S. officials said Wednesday that a military campaign in the stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has succeeded in nearly eliminating the deadly rocket and mortar attacks launched from the area.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling for weeks in the capital’s Sadr City neighborhood against Shiite fighters tied to Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The U.S. military said at least 142 suspected fighters have been killed, including at least 15 Tuesday night.

“We accomplished what we were trying to do, which was to stop the indirect fire,” said Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for Multinational Division-Baghdad. “The manifestation of the violence that you’re talking about has pretty much stopped.”

Are their lessons here for Israel?

Palestinian rockets have been falling on the Israeli town of Sderot since 2000. So far, fourteen Israelis have been killed. And the rockets keep coming, some of them reaching further into Israel, hitting the port city of Ashkelon. Neither the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, nor its own air-strikes and limited incursions has managed to suppress the barrage. What should Israel do?

Worldwide pressure is growing on it to negotiate with Hamas. Jimmy Carter is leading the way. But whether it is wise to talk directly or indirectly with a terrorist organization sworn to one’s own destruction is an open question that Israelis will have to answer for themselves.

While thinking about that, they might look at the U.S.-Iraqi experience protecting the Green Zone in Baghdad. Like Sderot, the Green Zone is adjacent to a densely populated slum much like Gaza, controlled by radical Arabs — Sadr City, the territory of the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Some 697 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired on the Green Zone from this area since March 23 alone. Only 114 hit the Green Zone, but U.S. coalition forces were struck by 291 of them.

Coalition forces have now managed to suppress the fire. “Attacks On Green Zone Drop Sharply, U.S. Says” is the headline of a story in today’s Washington Post.

U.S. officials said Wednesday that a military campaign in the stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has succeeded in nearly eliminating the deadly rocket and mortar attacks launched from the area.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling for weeks in the capital’s Sadr City neighborhood against Shiite fighters tied to Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The U.S. military said at least 142 suspected fighters have been killed, including at least 15 Tuesday night.

“We accomplished what we were trying to do, which was to stop the indirect fire,” said Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for Multinational Division-Baghdad. “The manifestation of the violence that you’re talking about has pretty much stopped.”

Are their lessons here for Israel?

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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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A New Direction?

From the Politico today:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she would bring a new Iraq measure to the House floor shortly to provide $50 billion in funds for the war, while requiring U.S. troops to begin redeploying out of Iraq immediately and conclude by the end of next year. “In last year’s election, the American people called for a new direction; nowhere was that direction more called for than in the war in Iraq,” Pelosi told reporters. “And so in the next day or so, we [will] once again bring to the floor legislation that makes a distinction, a clear distinction: choose a new direction from the Bush foreign policy in Iraq.”

This is yet more evidence—as if we needed it—that the goal of leading Democrats is to withdraw American troops from Iraq, even if withdrawal destroys our chances of success.

How can one come to any other conclusion? After all, the surge has been more successful than anyone could have imagined. This year we have seen progress made in Iraq on almost every front.

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From the Politico today:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she would bring a new Iraq measure to the House floor shortly to provide $50 billion in funds for the war, while requiring U.S. troops to begin redeploying out of Iraq immediately and conclude by the end of next year. “In last year’s election, the American people called for a new direction; nowhere was that direction more called for than in the war in Iraq,” Pelosi told reporters. “And so in the next day or so, we [will] once again bring to the floor legislation that makes a distinction, a clear distinction: choose a new direction from the Bush foreign policy in Iraq.”

This is yet more evidence—as if we needed it—that the goal of leading Democrats is to withdraw American troops from Iraq, even if withdrawal destroys our chances of success.

How can one come to any other conclusion? After all, the surge has been more successful than anyone could have imagined. This year we have seen progress made in Iraq on almost every front.

Earlier this week, for example, we learned from Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil, Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, that American forces have routed al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) from every neighborhood of Baghdad and that violence had declined since a spike in June. Murder victims are down 80 percent from where they were at the peak, and attacks involving improvised bombs are down 70 percent, he said. General Fil attributed the decline to improvements in the Iraqi security forces, a cease-fire ordered by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the disruption of financing for insurgents, and, most significantly, Iraqis’ rejection of “the rule of the gun.”

We’re seeing early reports (it’s still far too early to call it a trend) of refugees and displaced persons returning to their homes, which, if it continues, will be among the most compelling indicators of progress. People vote with their feet.

We have also seen substantial progress in the “war of ideas,” with Sunnis forcefully rejecting bin Ladenism. Earlier this week Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, told Hugh Hewitt about this development that took place in September:

Sheik Salman al-Awdah is a very prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden himself lionized this man. But on two occasions, most recently at the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month that just concluded, Sheik Awdah condemned, personally condemned bin Laden. You know, my son, Osama, how long will this go on? You know, this stain on Islam. I mean, it was a direct repudiation of everything that bin Laden stood for.

Sheik Awdah’s “open letter to Osama bin Laden” asked:

Brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocents among children, elderly, the weak, and women have been killed and made homeless in the name of al Qaeda? The ruin of an entire people, as is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq . . . cannot make Muslims happy. Who benefits from turning countries like Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia into places where fear spreads and no one can feel safe?

This is a stunning and important, if largely ignored, development.

In Iraq we’re also seeing some encouraging news on the economic front and very encouraging, even dramatic, progress on the local political front; “bottom-up” reconciliation is continuing apace. The main problem in Iraq lies with the central government and its unwillingness, still, to share power. Nevertheless, almost every important trend line in Iraq is positive. And yet to the likes of Speaker Pelosi, it matters not at all. She and her colleagues are ideologues in the truest sense—zealous and doctrinaire people committed to a path regardless of the evidence. And the fact that good news in Iraq seems to agitate her and other leading Democrats is astonishing, as well as unsettling.

Nancy Pelosi’s effort to subvert a manifestly successful (if belatedly implemented) strategy in Iraq is reckless and foolish—and it may succeed in driving down Congressional approval ratings, already at record lows, to single digits. Which is about where they belong.

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Correcting the GAO

The Washington Post gave front-page play last week to a leaked version of a draft Government Accountability Office report, claiming “Report Finds Little Progress on Iraq Goals.” Bill Kristol has already pointed out some of the report’s flaws—namely that it measures whether the Iraqis have “completed” (as opposed to simply made progress on) many irrelevant “benchmarks” mandated by Congress in an attempt to embarrass the Bush administration.

But I was still left wondering about one part of the Post’s front-page piece: “While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced.” The Post article goes on about the GAO report: “While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged.”

How can it be, I wondered, that GAO claims that the level of violence in Iraq is unchanged when every observer who has returned recently from Iraq says otherwise? I put that question to a friend of mine, an officer currently serving in Baghdad. As he explains below in this email (see below the jump), the problem is that GAO is citing suspect statistics. The figures he presents—generated by the U.S. military using procedures that have remained consistent and are generally accepted throughout the U.S. government—paint a picture of impressive progress since the surge began. (I’ve added a few explanations of acronyms.)

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The Washington Post gave front-page play last week to a leaked version of a draft Government Accountability Office report, claiming “Report Finds Little Progress on Iraq Goals.” Bill Kristol has already pointed out some of the report’s flaws—namely that it measures whether the Iraqis have “completed” (as opposed to simply made progress on) many irrelevant “benchmarks” mandated by Congress in an attempt to embarrass the Bush administration.

But I was still left wondering about one part of the Post’s front-page piece: “While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced.” The Post article goes on about the GAO report: “While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged.”

How can it be, I wondered, that GAO claims that the level of violence in Iraq is unchanged when every observer who has returned recently from Iraq says otherwise? I put that question to a friend of mine, an officer currently serving in Baghdad. As he explains below in this email (see below the jump), the problem is that GAO is citing suspect statistics. The figures he presents—generated by the U.S. military using procedures that have remained consistent and are generally accepted throughout the U.S. government—paint a picture of impressive progress since the surge began. (I’ve added a few explanations of acronyms.)

Max,

We disagree with the methodology the GAO uses to calculate its statistics, and we told them so during their short visit here last month. As you note, the GAO statistics differ considerably from the data we have for the same periods.

The statistics we use come from MNF-I [Multi-National Forces Iraq] databases which are a carefully managed collection of both Iraqi and Coalition reports. We strive to be rigorous in our data collection and checking, so much so that the analysts from CIA and DIA who worked on the National Intelligence Estimate, after spending three days poring over our methodology and data, announced that MNF-I numbers are the most accurate and would be used for the August 2007 NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] on Iraq. We do use Iraqi data that is verified by our forces. And we also continue to update/reverify data after the receipt of “first reports” (which are, as you know, generally wrong) and subsequent reports. The death toll in the recent truck bombings against the Yezidi villages in northwest Iraq, for example, when verified by our Special Forces teams after the dust literally settled, was a good bit lower than original accounts reported, and we thus adjusted that report downward. Sometimes, as in many Baghdad bombings, the first reports are low and we adjust the numbers upward in subsequent days. Some statistics we are tracking follow:

-Throughout all of Iraq, since the height of the ethno-sectarian violence in December 2006 until the end of August 2007, the overall number of civilian casualties (killed and wounded) has dropped 71 percent. Just counting civilian deaths, by any means, the numbers are even more dramatic, with a 74 percent drop since December 2006.

-Ethno-sectarian deaths (e.g., AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] bombing Kurds or Shi’a Arabs or Turkmen or Yezidis, etc., or JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi led by Moqtada al-Sadr] killing of Sunnis, etc.) in all of Iraq are down to less than one half of levels at the height of the violence last December.

-Attacks of any type in Anbar Province have gone from a high in October 2006 of more than 1350 per month to fewer than 250 per month now.

-The number of ammunition and explosive caches found has risen from a total of 2726 in 2006 to over 4350 this year (through the end of August).

-Overall incidents of violence against any target (ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], CF [Coalition Forces], civilian) in Iraq are down from a high of 1700 per week when we started the surge of operations in mid-June 2007 to fewer than 960 per week now. Overall incidents have declined in eight of the past eleven weeks. Last week’s number of incidents was the lowest in over a year.

-High profile attacks (car bomb, suicide car bomb, and suicide vest attacks) nationwide are down from a high in March 2007 of more than 170 per month to 88 in August.

-Since the intent of the surge was to secure Baghdad, which is the political heart of Iraq, here are some statistics focused on the ten security districts that comprise Baghdad from December 2006 to the end of August 2007:

-Car bomb attacks: 44 in December 2006, nineteen in August 2007 for a 57 percent drop.

-All IED’s [improvised explosive devices]: 240 in December 2006, 203 in August 2007 for a 15 percent drop.

-Explosive belts (Suicide vests): two in December 2006, zero in August 2007.

-Mortar and Rocket Attacks: 139 in December 2006, 98 in August 2007 for a 29 percent drop.

-Dead civilians (not just ethno-sectarian violence, but all categories): 2193 in December 2006, 575 in August 2007 for a 74 percent drop.

-Wounded civilians: 876 in December 2006, 302 in August 2007 for a 66 percent drop.

-Dead Iraqi security forces: 44 in December 2006, twenty in August 2007 for a 45 percent drop.

-Wounded Iraqi security forces: 136 in December 2006, 61 in August 2007 for a 55 percent drop.

-575 dead in Baghdad in August from all causes is still excessively high and we continue to work to drive down the violence. Nonetheless, by all of these measures there has been progress in bringing greater security to Baghdad.

Our methodology and numbers have been scrubbed thoroughly by the intelligence community and declared by the intel community the best available measures and data. We carefully examine both Coalition and Host Nation reports to ensure we have the most inclusive data available. Iraqi reports come from a variety of official governmental sources including the National Operations Center, the Baghdad Operational Command, the National Joint Operations Center, and Joint Security Stations. Unfortunately, the media and other agencies often use suspect data provided by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which is less rigorous and perhaps also motivated by a sectarian agenda.

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Calm Kadhimiya

If you want an illustration of the old adage that “good news is no news,” simply try to find stories about the pilgrimage by tens of thousands of Shiites to the Kadhimiya shrine in northwest Baghdad on Thursday. There were a few accounts—see, for instance, this New York Times article and this from the Los Angeles Times—but they were buried deep inside the newspapers.

What happened on Thursday was pretty remarkable: nothing. At least nothing terribly violent. Last year at least twenty pilgrims were killed by sniper and mortar attacks. In 2005, 1,000 pilgrims died on a bridge after rumors of a suicide bomber caused mass hysteria. This year, the death toll was two—and they died not as a result of an insurgent attack, but in a crush to get onto a train. A sniper did open fire at the procession from a Sunni neighborhood, but he was gunned down by Iraqi security forces without any of the pilgrims being killed.

The success of the march cannot be ascribed entirely to American and Iraqi security forces lining the parade route. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi militia also played a role in protecting the Shiite pilgrims. And it didn’t hurt that Sunnis effectively have been pushed out (or cleansed) from Kadhimiya, thereby creating a more secure environment for the Shiites. Nevertheless, the peaceful pilgrimage was a heartening sign of how, at long last, a modicum of security is coming to Baghdad.

If you want an illustration of the old adage that “good news is no news,” simply try to find stories about the pilgrimage by tens of thousands of Shiites to the Kadhimiya shrine in northwest Baghdad on Thursday. There were a few accounts—see, for instance, this New York Times article and this from the Los Angeles Times—but they were buried deep inside the newspapers.

What happened on Thursday was pretty remarkable: nothing. At least nothing terribly violent. Last year at least twenty pilgrims were killed by sniper and mortar attacks. In 2005, 1,000 pilgrims died on a bridge after rumors of a suicide bomber caused mass hysteria. This year, the death toll was two—and they died not as a result of an insurgent attack, but in a crush to get onto a train. A sniper did open fire at the procession from a Sunni neighborhood, but he was gunned down by Iraqi security forces without any of the pilgrims being killed.

The success of the march cannot be ascribed entirely to American and Iraqi security forces lining the parade route. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi militia also played a role in protecting the Shiite pilgrims. And it didn’t hurt that Sunnis effectively have been pushed out (or cleansed) from Kadhimiya, thereby creating a more secure environment for the Shiites. Nevertheless, the peaceful pilgrimage was a heartening sign of how, at long last, a modicum of security is coming to Baghdad.

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

There is no shortage of bad news from Iraq, such as the bombing of another market in Baghdad that reportedly killed 25 people on Tuesday, another suicide bombing near the Iranian border that killed fifteen people on Wednesday, and various other attacks around the country that killed seven U.S. soldiers and two marines. Yet amid the inevitable setbacks there are also some modest signs of progress.

On Saturday, U.S. Special Operations forces killed Sheikh Azhar al-Dulaymi, a major-league bad guy responsible for the daring operation in Karbala on January 20th, in which attackers disguised as U.S. troops invaded a government compound and killed five American soldiers. The U.S. military command said that intelligence indicated that Dulaymi had received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and their Lebanese Hizballah puppets.

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There is no shortage of bad news from Iraq, such as the bombing of another market in Baghdad that reportedly killed 25 people on Tuesday, another suicide bombing near the Iranian border that killed fifteen people on Wednesday, and various other attacks around the country that killed seven U.S. soldiers and two marines. Yet amid the inevitable setbacks there are also some modest signs of progress.

On Saturday, U.S. Special Operations forces killed Sheikh Azhar al-Dulaymi, a major-league bad guy responsible for the daring operation in Karbala on January 20th, in which attackers disguised as U.S. troops invaded a government compound and killed five American soldiers. The U.S. military command said that intelligence indicated that Dulaymi had received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and their Lebanese Hizballah puppets.

U.S. forces have also rolled up a gang of insurgents responsible for downing a string of our helicopters. As summarized by USA Today:

Enemy fighters shot down six military helicopters in January and February, killing 23 servicemembers. Heavy machine guns were used in four attacks and small arms in one assault. A missile was used to down one of the six helicopters. Two private contractor helicopters were also shot down during that time.

But, as the newspaper continues, “There haven’t been any fatal helicopter attacks since February.” This may be attributed to a combination of factors. One shouldn’t discount the role of pure, dumb luck, but American aviators have also successfully changed their operating procedures and have even managed to ambush the ambushers. As USA Today notes:

During the raids, U.S. forces combined air attacks with ground assaults that captured insurgents, [Maj. Gen. James] Simmons said. Information gathered in those raids revealed anti-helicopter tactics used by insurgents. The military used that knowledge to launch counter-ambushes, using U.S. aircraft to target the [insurgent] teams.

There is also some good news on the political front. This Washington Post story reports that Moqtada Al-Sadr, head of the Jaish al-Mahdi (the Mahdist Army, JMA), one of the largest and most violent Shiite factions, professes to be moderating:

The 33-year-old populist is reaching out to a broad array of Sunni leaders, from politicians to insurgents, and purging extremist members of his Mahdi Army militia who target Sunnis. . . . And moderates are taking up key roles in Sadr’s movement, professing to be less anti-American and more nationalist as they seek to improve Sadr’s image and position him in the middle of Iraq’s ideological spectrum.

Meanwhile, the other leading Shiite party is changing its name from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, dropping the “revolution” in its name to make clear that it is not seeking a radical overhaul of Iraqi society. This faction, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, is trying to lessen its ties to Iran and to remake itself as an Iraqi nationalist movement.

A measure of skepticism is in order about both changes—elements of JAM remain extremely violent, and both it and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council maintain strong subterranean links with the Iranian leadership. The latest steps may simply be tactical adjustments in their ultimate pursuit of power. Nevertheless they are positive steps, and they are being met with some Sunni reciprocation. There are reports of Sunni tribes in Diyala and other provinces forming their own groups to resist al Qaeda, following in the footsteps of the Anbar Salvation Council. And the original Anbar group is expanding its activities to other parts of the country. As this New York Times story reports:

In a hopeful sign on Tuesday, a Sunni tribal leader made a conciliatory public visit to Sadr City, the Shiite enclave in western Baghdad. Sheikh Hamid al-Hayis, leader of an alliance of Sunni tribes that recently began providing men to fight al Qaeda beside the marines in Anbar Province, met with backers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Salih al-Ugaily, a Sadr supporter in Parliament, said in an interview that the two sides had agreed on the need for reconciliation and to expedite holding provincial elections, a major demand of Sunni Iraqis, many of whom have said they feel disenfranchised after boycotting previous elections.

Neither security operations nor the political process is moving as quickly as anyone would like, but it would be a mistake to despair too soon. In particular it would be a mistake to give up on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and try to replace him with someone more to America’s liking—an option suggested in this Los Angeles Times article.

Maliki, for all his faults, has only been in office a year, and he is by many accounts improving. He is the third Iraqi leader hand-picked by American officials since Jerry Bremer gave up power in 2004. The previous two—Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al Jaafari—weren’t so hot. There is no reason to think that anyone who replaces Maliki would be any better, especially when one of the top potential replacements (at least in his own mind) is Allawi.

Replacing prime ministers means going back to square one. Better to work with the leader already in place, however imperfect, and to strengthen his hand by weakening through military action the Shiite and Sunni extremists who threaten the fragile political process. And this is, more or less, the strategy that General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker plan to follow, according to this Washington Post dispatch. We can only wait and hope for results.

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If I Were an Iraqi Politician . . .

Following the President’s veto of the Iraq spending bill, Democrats have dropped their demands for pullout timetables. They are talking instead about imposing “benchmarks” to force the Iraqi government to pass an oil-sharing law, disarm sectarian militias, hold provincial elections, and take other important steps. The main dispute now centers on whether these benchmarks will be nonbinding or whether they will be tied to mandatory penalties, such as the cut-off of some U.S. funds.

That’s progress, I suppose. But the Democrats are undermining the prospects of achieving the reforms they claim to want by their insistent calls to start withdrawing U.S. troops ASAP.

Put yourself into the mind of a Kurdish, Sunni, or Shiite politician in Baghdad, and ask yourself this question: Would you be more willing to compromise if you think U.S. troops are in Iraq for the long term, or if you think they’re about to leave?

Hmmm. Let’s see. If the U.S. troops leave now, an all-out civil war is likely to erupt. It will be every man for himself. The nascent Iraqi Security Forces will probably splinter along sectarian lines, leaving Iraqis of all stripes to seek safety from extremist militias. It would be the Lebanese civil war on steroids.

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Following the President’s veto of the Iraq spending bill, Democrats have dropped their demands for pullout timetables. They are talking instead about imposing “benchmarks” to force the Iraqi government to pass an oil-sharing law, disarm sectarian militias, hold provincial elections, and take other important steps. The main dispute now centers on whether these benchmarks will be nonbinding or whether they will be tied to mandatory penalties, such as the cut-off of some U.S. funds.

That’s progress, I suppose. But the Democrats are undermining the prospects of achieving the reforms they claim to want by their insistent calls to start withdrawing U.S. troops ASAP.

Put yourself into the mind of a Kurdish, Sunni, or Shiite politician in Baghdad, and ask yourself this question: Would you be more willing to compromise if you think U.S. troops are in Iraq for the long term, or if you think they’re about to leave?

Hmmm. Let’s see. If the U.S. troops leave now, an all-out civil war is likely to erupt. It will be every man for himself. The nascent Iraqi Security Forces will probably splinter along sectarian lines, leaving Iraqis of all stripes to seek safety from extremist militias. It would be the Lebanese civil war on steroids.

If that’s likely to happen soon, what incentive do Iraqi politicians have to make concessions today to their mortal enemies? If they think the U.S. is seeking an exit strategy, they are far more likely to hunker down, keep their powder dry, and grab every advantage they can in order to give themselves an edge in the coming struggle.

Conversely, if Iraqis think that U.S. troops are in it for the long haul, they will become far less dependent on militias and may be willing to make the compromises necessary for national reconciliation. If U.S. troops, working with Iraqi forces, succeed in blunting the power of the extremist militias, this may create some breathing room for moderate political elements—and they do exist—to come to the fore. Chaos in the streets favors thugs like Moqtada al Sadr. If we can impose a period of calm, it might allow moderates like Ayatollah Sistani to reassert their influence.

In other words, the best bet for getting important legislation through the Iraqi parliament is to stick with General David Petraeus’s security plan. But the Democrats are undermining that plan with their calls for troop withdrawal. Even if American troops make gains on the ground in the next few months, it will be hard to convince most Iraqis to put their faith in the coalition and government forces as long as the message emanating from Washington is that our troops are about to head home.

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The Military’s Media Problem

I’ve been traveling around Iraq for more than a week, spending time with U.S. forces. One constant is complaints about the news media. “Why doesn’t the press show the good we’re doing?,” soldiers ask. They wonder why the coverage seems so slanted.

Part of the answer is that the soldiers’ tactical successes may not be adding up to strategic success. Another part of the answer is undoubtedly the bias of the press—not only against the war but also in favor of negative news. But another important factor is the ham-handed reticence with which the military makes its own case.

The conventional military mindset sees the media as a potential enemy to be shunned at all costs. Officers who get quoted too much are derided behind their backs as “glory-seekers” or “self-promoters.” The focus is always supposed to be on the team, not the individual, and there is a general assumption that good deeds will speak for themselves. General George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq (now about to become Army chief of staff), exemplified this point of view. He seldom spoke to the media and tightly limited who could speak on behalf of his command.

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I’ve been traveling around Iraq for more than a week, spending time with U.S. forces. One constant is complaints about the news media. “Why doesn’t the press show the good we’re doing?,” soldiers ask. They wonder why the coverage seems so slanted.

Part of the answer is that the soldiers’ tactical successes may not be adding up to strategic success. Another part of the answer is undoubtedly the bias of the press—not only against the war but also in favor of negative news. But another important factor is the ham-handed reticence with which the military makes its own case.

The conventional military mindset sees the media as a potential enemy to be shunned at all costs. Officers who get quoted too much are derided behind their backs as “glory-seekers” or “self-promoters.” The focus is always supposed to be on the team, not the individual, and there is a general assumption that good deeds will speak for themselves. General George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq (now about to become Army chief of staff), exemplified this point of view. He seldom spoke to the media and tightly limited who could speak on behalf of his command.

The result of such caution is to cede the “information battlespace” to critics of the war and even to outright enemies such as Osama bin Laden and Moqtada al Sadr, who have shrewdly manipulated press coverage. General David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, wants to engage more actively in what are known as “information operations,” and he’s off to a good start. He is, for instance, taking reporters with him on tours of the battlefield. On Saturday he had a correspondent from the San Antonio newspaper along when he traveled to Baqubah. (I also accompanied him, as did Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.) But to be successful, Petraeus will have to get more officers to follow his example.

Some officers I met with earlier this week at Task Force Justice in the Khadimiya neighborhood of northwest Baghdad offered useful suggestions for what should be done: (1) require all battalions to set up a secure, comfortable room where reporters can stay and file stories; (2) contact media organizations to invite them to send embeds; (3) distribute lists of media contacts down to battalion and even company level and encourage officers to contact the press directly, bypassing the ponderous public-affairs bureaucracy; (4) grade battalion, brigade, and division commanders on how well they engage the press.

To this I would add one other idea: troops on the ground who see inaccurate reports about their operations should contact the media outlets in question and demand corrections—or take other steps to publicize the facts as they know them. In short: stop griping about the press in private and start doing something about it in public. That’s just what some military bloggers are already doing, but their activities are often frowned upon.

What the armed forces have to realize is that in today’s world engaging in information ops can no longer be a peripheral part of a military campaign. In a sense, the kinetic operations have come to be peripheral to the core struggle for hearts and minds in Iraq—and back home. If the armed forces don’t do a better job of waging this part of the struggle, they can lose the war, no matter what happens on the battlefield.

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