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Sadr Fighting Marks Surge Limits

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/malikibush.jpgIraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President George W. Bush (whitehouse.gov)

This week, the final U.S. Army brigade deployed to Baghdad as part of the troop surge returns to the United States. And that’s only appropriate, as the inter-Shiite conflict between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and forces loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr marked the surge’s epitaph.

Across the southern port city of Basra and in eastern Baghdad’s restive, 3 million-people-strong Shiite slum — known as Sadr City — Iraqi soldiers and police launched a campaign of suppression against Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. Maliki initially demanded the Mahdi Army disarm within three days. But the resiliency of Sadr’s militiamen — many of whom have infiltrated the government security forces — forced Maliki to relax his deadline. On Sunday, the government accepted a ceasefire almost entirely on Sadr’s terms: brokered by an Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani (who, McClatchy reported, is on the Treasury Department’s terrorist watch-list), the Mahdi Army will retain its weapons. Further negotiations will take place in the Iranian city of Qom, where Sadr will receive Maliki’s emissaries.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

The nearly week-long fighting left hundreds dead. March saw nearly 1000 civilians dead across Iraq — an increase of 30 percent over February. February, in turn, saw its own 30 percent increase in civilian casualties over January. And in January, statistics released to The Washington Independent by the U.S. military command in Iraq showed increases in insurgent and terrorist explosions and suicide attacks during the final weeks of 2006.

The trend toward increased violence in early 2008 does not rise to the level of the bloodshed Iraq experienced in mid-to-late 2006, before the surge began. But it does underscore the limits of what the surge achieved, according to U.S. government officials and outside experts, even on the security front where the Bush administration argued it was most successful. “The fact is, the ISF [Iraqi security forces] couldn’t fulfill a major campaign against an insurgent group on its own,” said a U.S. intelligence analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I personally think that’s the real story. The ISF, despite the surge, and despite the [rhetoric from the Bush administration that] ‘they’ll stand up as we stand down,’ couldn’t fulfill their core requirement.”

Indeed, Iraqi forces could not suppress the Mahdi Army in Iraq’s very capital. U.S. armor units rushed to the aid of Maliki’s police, many of whom were forced from their checkpoints or opted to join Sadr’s insurrectionists. The Mahdi Army’s largely amateurish fighters managed to destroy a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, the state-of-the-art U.S. engineering answer to Iraq’s signature improvised explosive devices. While U.S. military officials could hardly resist a request from the U.S.-supported Iraqi prime minister for relief, the fact remained that U.S. soldiers became combatants in an inter-Shiite power struggle — and appeared not to have been part of Maliki’s planning. “The planning was not done under our auspices at all,” an anonymous U.S. military commander told McClatchy.

It should be noted that there are no additional forces to relieve those now in Iraq and maintain current levels. The U.S. commanding general in Iraq, David H. Petraeus, and the leading U.S. diplomat, Amb. Ryan C. Crocker , will testify before Congress next week in favor of pausing scheduled troop reductions. But military overstretch and the grueling tempo of operations for U.S. soldiers and Marines ensures that U.S. military strength in Iraq has just ended its apogee — and still theSadrist uprising exploded.

But the surge was never intended to bring violence down to 2005 levels — when, it’s worth remembering, violence was so pervasive that the first wave of U.S. politicians reacted by calling for withdrawal — nor to give Iraqi security forces the opportunity to skirmish with militias. President George W. Bush presented the surge to the American nation on Jan. 10, 2007 as an effort to enable political progress.

On that front, some experts say, Sadr’s victory over Maliki exposed the weakness of the U.S.’s partner. “In spite of holding de jure power, Maliki can’t exert territorial control over even the Shiite regions of Iraq,” said Robert Farley, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s Paterson School of Diplomacy. “While the surge has reduced violence, it has failed utterly to create Iraqi state capacity. The Iraqi central government is as far as ever from exerting control over other armed groups within Iraq.”

Some in the Bush administration contended that a fact more significant than the Iraqi government’s poor military capacity was Maliki’s willingness to go after a co-religionist militia. Bush called it a “bold decision.” CIA Director Michael Hayden called it “a very decisive act on the part of Prime Minister Maliki to get personally involved and commit his forces and his government to extending Iraqi government control over parts of Iraqi that, frankly, have not been under much central government control now for several years.”

Brandon Friedman, who served in Iraq as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division in 2003 (commanded at the time by Petraeus), disagreed. “It’s very clear now that — after five years of American training and assistance — the militias still wield more power and influence than any national, organized Iraqi military or police force,” Friedman, who edits the veterans’ advocacy blog VetVoice.com, wrote in an e-mail.This is exactly what both Maliki and the Bush administration were trying to disprove last week.Unfortunately for them, they only succeeded in showing how inept and dependent the Maliki government is on outside forces.”

Yet despite Sadr’s strength, and Maliki’s weakness, there is little likelihood of the U.S. abandoning Maliki. “Who’s going to come out on top is still unclear, but obviously the U.S. is still going to support Maliki,” said the U.S. intelligence analyst. “He’s the hand the U.S. has been dealt. We have to back him because there’s no alternative.”

No matter what, however, the Bush administration insists that the surge is a success in the face of all evidence because to do otherwise would be to admit a blunder. And this administration has no record of admitted to an error.

The contortions necessary to preserve the myth of the surge have been impressive. Even as fierce fighting raged in Basra and Sadr City — fighting that would ultimately redound to the detriment of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government — Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, pronounced on Thursday, “At this early stage, it looks as though it is a by-product of the success of the surge, in the sense that the Iraqi government has grown and increased in capability to the point where they now feel confident going after extremists — Shi’a extremists in a part of the country that had been — that they had not exerted great influence over. And so we, at this point, though still early, would view it as a sign of success.”

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