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.