Monday, May 21, 2007

Sadr The Enigma; Sadr City The Conundrum

Pronouncements on Sadr's influence and power in Iraq run the gambit from the New York Times who portray him as a pivotal figure of immense power to others, such as one U.S. officer who said the other day that support among the Shia for Sadr is "a mile wide and an inch deep."  And there are questions about the control Sadr has over the Mahdi Army, as well as the degree to which he and his movement are influenced by Iran. Answers to all of these are becoming of immense importance as the U.S. now looks to the next step in its counter-insurgency operation - how to fully occupy Sadr City and end the threat of the Mahdi Army?

Sadr is the son of a very popular and populist Ayatollah murdered by Saddam. Despite a lack of religous and academic credentials and seriously lacking in oratory skills, Sadr nonetheless inherited his father's mantle. There is no question that he was a powerful figure in Iraq through 2005 and well into 2006. He led a massive uprising against U.S. forces that ended with the decimation of his Mahdi Army in Najaf in 2004. His goal, then and now, was to evict U.S. forces from Iraq and see the installation of a Shia led Islamic government.

Following the Najaf defeat, the Mahdi Army reconstituted with arms and funding from Iran. It arose again as a significant force as 2005 progressed, engaging in numerous firefights with Iraqi Army and police forces. In 2006, following al Qaeda in Iraq's bombing of the Mosque of the Golden Dome, Sadr was clearly losing control of his forces, with the first signs of the reconstituted Mahdi Army splintering into separate militias and cells. It was largely from these splinter elements that arose the death squads responsible for a significant amount of the sectarian violence against Sunnis that continued well into 2006.

Sadr himself opted to enter into the political process. His party eventually won 30 seats in the 245 member Parliament, forming a significant bloc of the 145 member ruling coalition of Prime Minister Maliki. Sadr's party was also assigned six ministries. None of those ministries were run functionally, and at least one, the Ministry of Health, was infamous for corruption and bloodshed. There is no question that Sadr exerted signficant influence over Maliki through the fall of 2005, inducing Maliki to limit U.S. operations against Sadr's interests.

After the sectarian violence of the Mahdi Army climaxed in October, 2006, events came politically to a head shortly thereafter. There were loud rumblings in the U.S. government over unhappiness with Maliki, and the other major Iraqi Shia party reached across the aisle to both Kurd and Sunni legislators with offers to form a new ruling coalition. Maliki had a catharsis and broke with Sadr, announcing his support for the Operation Imposing Law - in U.S. terms the surge - that was to target all combatants, including the Mahdi Army. Further, Maliki announced his intention to strip Sadr of the six ministries. Shortly before Operation Imposing Law began in February, 2007, Sadr fled to Iran and has not been seen in Iraq since. Publicly, he ordered his militia to lay down their arms and refrain from hostilities prior to fleeing.

In March, U.S. and Iraqi forces entered into the southern section of Sadr City and set up a permanent base. They have used that base to target militia commanders and death squads in Sadr City, significantly degrading these elements. In April, Sadr called for a massive demonstration in Najaf against the continued "occupation" of Iraq by U.S. forces. The demonstration, which Sadr and his supporters expected to draw hundreds of thousands and up to as many as a million people, ended up drawing less then 10,000 demonstrators and probably as few as 5,000 to 7,000. Shortly thereafter, Sadr withdrew his six ministers from the government but kept his legislators in Parliament and still as part of the ruling coalition.

Sadr and his movement seem both highly vulnerable, yet still quite capable of coallescing in response to some huge mistake upon which Sadr could capitalize to stem his waning influence. The clear splintering of his militia, the dreadful attendance at his rally, the isolation of Sadr's block in Parliament, and Maliki's turn against Sadr all strongly suggest that Sadr's influence is now at its nadir. That said, Sadr can hardly be ignored. According to the Washington Post, he is attempting to remake himself in the manner of a Robert Byrd who went from Ku Klux Klansmen to a Democrat committed to racial equality. He is reaching across to Sunni and to Sunni insurgeant groups in the hopes of building an anti-U.S. nationalist coalition.

This will not likely work. Robert Byrd left the Klan without any ties to racist organizations and with no history of violence. Sadr, on the other hand, is clearly tied to Iran and he has a history written in the blood of countless Sunnis. If he is successful in remaking himself, it will be far down the road.

While Sadr still remains enigmatic and we are left to draw many suppositions, the stage seems set for the U.S. to make a big push into Sadr City and an equally big push to pacify the splintered elements of the Sadr militia, whether by the gun or by the peace offering. If, as seems likely, the support for Sadr since 2003 was mostly predicated on security and stability the Mahdi Army offered for the Shia, then an increasing powerful U.S. and Iraqi presence in Sadr City ought to be able to supplant Sadr as confidence grows in the government.

As an excellent Washington Post article makes clear today, that task will involve negotiations, confidence building measures, and a velvet glove over the iron fist:

The U.S. military is engaged in delicate negotiations inside Sadr City to clear the way for a gradual push in coming weeks by more American and Iraqi forces into the volatile Shiite enclave of more than 2 million people, one of the most daunting challenges of the campaign to stabilize Baghdad.

So sensitive is the problem of the sprawling slum -- heavily controlled by militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, personally approves all targets for raids inside the Baghdad district, military officers said.

Lacking sufficient troops so far to move deeper into Sadr City, the military has cautiously edged into the southern part, conducting searches and patrols, handing out supplies and using offers of economic aid to try to overcome resistance. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations forces and other U.S. and Iraqi troops have detained militia leaders in an effort to weaken their organization.

As additional U.S. forces flow into Baghdad this month and next, the plan is to step up the presence of U.S. and Iraqi troops in Sadr City, U.S. commanders said in interviews over the past three weeks. "More U.S. forces are needed in Sadr City to establish greater control, with Iraqi forces. We have to be matched," Col. Billy Don Farris, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade and senior U.S. officer for the area.

Commanders say they intend to use political negotiations to gain peaceful entry into the district, bringing with them Iraqi forces and reconstruction projects. U.S. officials hope "to take Sadr City without a shot fired," said Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., the senior U.S. general overseeing Baghdad.

. . . If political avenues are exhausted, the U.S. military has formulated other options, including plans for a wholesale clearing operation in Sadr City that would require a much larger force, but commanders stress that this is a last resort.

"A second Fallujah plan exists, but we don't want to execute it," a military officer in Baghdad said, referring to the U.S. military offensive in November 2004 to retake the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in Iraq's western Anbar province. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters.

. . . Negotiations with local officials by U.S. officers, stalled off and on by assassination attempts and other threats, this month achieved incremental progress with a project to put protective barriers around a main Sadr City market. Iraqi police and contractors are now carrying out the project, which will take about three weeks to complete, said Lt. Col. David Oclander of the 82nd Airborne.

Commanders stress that the "soft" approach to Sadr City does not apply to violent militia cells, which are targeted throughout the area by U.S. Special Operations troops and other forces.

"More often than not, we're successful," said Staff Sgt. Dan Moss, of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Stryker Brigade, as he returned from a recent night raid in which his team broke into a house and captured an Iraqi suspected of bombing the security station in Sadr City.

In the absence of Sadr and other leaders of his movement, who left Baghdad early this year before the new security plan began, the raids have weakened some militia factions, U.S. officers said. U.S. forces "pretty much wiped out a whole layer of middle people," said Capt. Douglas Hess, who helps advise Iraqi national police in Sadr City.

There is now "a degree of chaos," in Sadr's movement, said a senior military official in Baghdad. Sadr's aides insist that the cleric still has control over his movement and that his militia has lain low in Sadr City in deference to his orders.

Attacks on the U.S.-Iraqi security station in Sadr City are a reminder that the entrenched Shiite militia is a force to contend with. . .

American officers readily acknowledge militia infiltration of the police. "Everyone is affiliated" with the Mahdi Army in Sadr City, said Capt. Frank Fisher, who runs an operations center with Iraqi police.

Brig. Gen. Ali Ibrahim Daboun, the senior Iraqi commander in the area, and many of his policemen come from Sadr City and therefore are "left more open to coercion and intimidation by the militia," said Hess. "General Ali can only do so much," he said.

U.S. commanders suggest that rather than shun the militia members in the police with whom they live, U.S. troops should try to win them over. "They can be the best spokesmen," Kim said.

National police Staff Sgt. Ali Mahid Mohammed, 27, said some elements of the Mahdi Army are "good, religious people" who help residents, while others "like to kill and kidnap and steal."

Col. Hamoud, a police liaison who has lived in Sadr City for 19 years and spoke on condition his full name not be used, said residents welcome aid from the United States brought peacefully, but warned that if U.S. troops use force, they will meet opposition.

"If they put their boots on people's heads," he said, referring to a highly insulting gesture in Iraqi culture, "there will be fighting."
Thus the next phase of the counter-insurgency campaign begins. And if General Petraeus can skillfully pull off the pacification of Sadr City and the co-opting where possible, destruction where not, of Sadr's militia, it will be an event every bit as significant as what is happening today in Anbar Province.

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