Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A Lighter Shade Of Purple

I've been doing my best to try to decipher the riddle wrapped in an enigma that was the recent military confrontation in Iraq involving a raid on a Shiite religious center/mosque/insurgent compound that killed 17/20/37 Iraqis who were members of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi militia/Sunni insurgents - with alternate versions of events given depending on who you ask. It doesn't seem like anyone has clear answers, yet, but there are myriad, overlapping and often conflicting motives for the disparate narratives being put forth. This portion of the account from Lt. Col. Sean Swindell, whose unit participated in the raid, offers little in the way of clarity.
[Swindell] said he did not know if the [targeted] group had a name, or what its religious affiliation was...
Those might actually be facts that we would want to square away, you know, in advance of initiating a battle. Just a thought. The raid itself was conducted by US forces and Iraqi units operating under the label of the "Iraqi counterterrorism force" - which are, ostensibly, under Iraqi government control. Only problem is, no one in the Iraqi government seems to know who this unit answers to. Swopa offers his best guess and a wager:

The "Iraqi counterterrorism force" referred to in the WaPo story is almost certainly the heir to a battalion created at the end of 2003 from the militias -- yes, irony is useless here -- of various parties allied with the U.S. at the time. It basically exists to be the trustworthy "Iraqi face" to be put on U.S. military initiatives such as the assaults on Fallujah and the intended attack on Imam Ali shrine in Najaf when al-Sadr occupied it in 2004. I'd bet a few bucks that at this point, it consists primarily of Iyad Allawi loyalists and Kurdish peshmerga.
Predictably, certain governmental figures of the "sovereign" nation of Iraq - anointed with so much purple hued fanfare - were none too pleased about military actions authorized by channels that circumvented the civilian, governmental chain of command. According to this article, some Shiite politicians are looking to reassert their control (via Juan Cole). From the Dawa branch:

Iraq's ruling Shia Islamist Alliance bloc demanded on Monday that U.S. forces return control of security to the Iraqi government after what it called "cold-blooded" killings of unarmed people by troops in a mosque.

"The Alliance calls for a rapid restoration of (control of) security matters to the Iraqi government," Jawad Al Maliki, a senior Alliance spokesman and ally of Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari, told a news conference.
And from SCIRI:

At the news conference, Rida Jawad Al Takki, from the SCIRI party in the Alliance, said: "We have said so often that the American forces have been committing great mistakes on security issues and Iraqis should deal with these."

He said the operation was carried out by Iraqi forces that were under U.S. control and not accountable to the government.
Suffice it to say, I think we know where Sadr stands on this recent display of force given that members of his Mehdi militia were the primary targets. That pretty much takes care of the UIA. Some local politicians got into the mix too, as recounted by Cole:

The governor of Baghdad province, Hussein al-Tahan, announced Monday "Today we decided to stop all political and service cooperation with the US forces until a legal committee is formed to investigate this incident."
It's difficult to see what our motives would be behind this recent act. There are several plausible explanations - though none are particularly appealing. First, there is a possibility that we attacked the wrong target. As Cole recounted:

...the US and Iraqi forces say they raided a terror cell in Adhamiyah. Adhamiyah is a Sunni district of Baghdad and is still Baath territory.

But somehow the joint US-Iraqi force ended up north, at the Shiite Shaab district. They say that they took fire from Mahdi Army militiamen. But there aren't any such Mahdi Army men in Adhamiyah. I have a sinking feeling that instead of raiding a Sunni Arab building in Adhamiyah, they got disoriented and attacked a Shiite religious center in nearby Shaab instead.
The fact that Lt. Col. Swindell admitted that he did not know the religious or organizational affiliation of the targets lends an ounce of credence to this story. On the other hand, this "mistake" could have been a bit more deliberate - at least for the Iraqi units involved. Swindell indicated that the raid may have been in retaliation for the torture and killing of "three men belonging to the Iraqi counterterrorism force." As Swopa alluded to, it is possible that the US got dragged into a turf war between a shadowy Iraqi military group and some foes in the Mehdi militia who had previously exacted a toll on three of its members.

Then there is the possibility that this raid was a deliberate act of aggression designed to serve a variety of purposes: 1) to weaken the strength of Sadr's militia; 2) to send a warning to the Shiites in general that militia activity will not be tolerated [But if either option 1 or 2 is the case, we should see many follow up battles because one shot like this won't accomplish much - Sadr won't be weakened enough, and other militias won't likely lay down their arms because of one bloody skirmish between non-related forces]; and/or 3) this could be a part of Khalilzad's game of pressuring the Shiites by "manipulat[ing] the military balance of power," or at least threatening to do so, ala Stephen Biddle's suggestions.

Here's the rub, whatever was behind this confrontation, my advice would be to tone it down and refrain from a repeat performance. If it was ignorance or a mistake of locations, tighten up the intel in advance. That is a must. If we're being used by certain Iraqi military units to settle scores with their militia-based adversaries, let's avoid playing that role. It will end up alienating large swathes of the Iraqi population in the service of dubious objectives. Finding ourselves stuck in the middle of a low-intensity civil war is bad enough. We don't need to start participating in internecine conflicts to boot.

And if this is some type of maneuver attempting to isolate, weaken or threaten Sadr and/or the rest of the UIA sufficient to compel them to negotiate with the Sunni insurgents/political leaders, we might want to reconsider that tactic as well. The balance required for playing both (multiple?) sides of that street is remarkably delicate, and the ability of the various factions in the UIA to mobilize their constituents could make our continued presence in Iraq untenable. I just don't think we have that kind of leverage any more. This would be a very, very dangerous game to be playing regardless.

Above all, we better start using the Iraqi government to clear actions by Iraqi military units or we risk having to deal with the, er, uncomfortable prospect of overriding the Iraqi government's insistence that we hand over security functions to them. They might even ask us to leave. And then we would have to undermine the democratically elected government we have been so busy showing off to the world as a justification for the invasion, and the nascent manifestation of the panacea for jihadist terrorism. I wonder what that would do to bolster our image and inspire faith in our democracy promoting agenda throughout the region.

Right about now, President Bush must be thinking to himself, "This democracy stuff is hard work." Maybe he'll just leave it all to the next president. And history.

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