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Five years after fall of Baghdad, progress mixed

Opinion: Al-Sadr, not prime minister, is still the most powerful man in Iraq

Image: Sadr City clashes
A militiaman loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtda al-Sadr carries his rifle after attacking an Iraqi Army vehicle in the Sadr city Shiite district east of Baghdad on Sunday.
Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty Images
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Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the commanding general of American forces in Iraq will appear before congressional committees this week, exactly five years after the fall of Baghdad. The general is expected to explain his request to the president that the withdrawal of the additional forces used for the troop “surge” be temporarily stopped after two of the five brigades have departed.  No doubt this will lead to charges that the surge has failed and that the recent clashes in Basra and Baghdad’s Sadr City underscore the lack of political reconciliation in the country.

It will be hard to convince the skeptics on the committees that the results of the surge are indeed mixed. Five years after the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdus Square, American forces are still required to maintain security in the country, sometimes even in the capital. Although the invasion itself was a well-executed military campaign, American forces were able to seize Baghdad in less than three weeks and the subsequent insurgencies dashed any hope of a quick withdrawal.

It took us four years of fighting the Sunni insurgency, al-Qaida, jihadists and Shiite militias to figure out that our “firebase” mentality was not working. Garrisoning units in secure areas and leaving them to conduct operations only to depart the scene shortly after securing an objective had temporary effects: the bad guys simply came back after we left.  Gen. Petraeus’ strategies have changed that and troops are now out in the communities and stay there day and night.  As a brigade commander told me last week, “We walk to work.”

Looking at the current situation in Iraq, there is cause for concern. The purpose of the surge for the last nine months was to provide a window of opportunity for political reconciliation in Iraq, “breathing room” for the various factions to coalesce into a viable government. 

There is no question that the U.S. military has upheld its part of the bargain and the same cannot be said of the Iraqi government and political leadership. Only recently have they been able to pass any meaningful legislation, but the major issues facing the country remain in limbo. Just as the national assembly seemed to be moving in the right direction, the confrontation in Basra stopped that from happening now.

To his credit, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acted decisively against Shiite militia elements in Basra, evoking visions of the FBI trying to clean up Prohibition-era Chicago. The mere decision by the Shiite-dominated government to go after warring Shiite militias sent a positive sign to the Sunnis and Kurds and both groups have been concerned over the potential “tyranny of the majority.” Unfortunately, the government did not follow through, instead opting to accept an Iranian-brokered ceasefire with jaysh al-mahdi (Mahdi Army) leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Perception vs. reality
Ceasefires are a time-honored tradition in the Middle East and South Asia. During the fighting in Lebanon, it was not unusual to have several ceasefires in any given week, all short-lived. In Afghanistan, we accepted the word of our Northern Alliance allies that the surrenders of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden were imminent, only to have both escape at the last minute.  Making a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr, at a time when it appears that his militia was taking devastating casualties, was the wrong decision by al-Maliki. It allowed al-Sadr to survive again and even gain further strength. Although his militia was badly battered, the perception is that he successfully defied Baghdad and the Americans. In the Middle East, perception always trumps reality.

The concurrent violence in Baghdad’s Sadr City, stronghold of the Mahdi Army, continues, calling into question the wisdom of al-Maliki’s acceptance of the ceasefire.  Al-Sadr will not go away without being compelled. If the government in Baghdad is going to succeed, it must deal with the Shiite militias, but most of all Muqtada al-Sadr.  Even if the government is successful in its attempt to defeat the remaining al-Qaidajihadists with the current campaign in Mosul, it must still address the Muqtada al-Sadr issue.

Five years after the fall of Baghdad, the Sunni insurgency has been either defeated or co-opted. Al-Qaida in Iraq has been marginalized and hopefully on the verge of eradication. The nascent Iraqi government may be coming together into a coherent body. Unfortunately, Muqtada al-Sadr, despite numerous clashes with the Iraqi government and American forces, remains arguably the most influential man in Iraq. If al-Maliki cannot marginalize Muqtada al-Sadr, the surge will have been for naught.

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