Monday, August 07, 2006

The Oil Spot In Reverse

The unfortunately timed efforts to rein in the surging Moqtada al-Sadr are starting to pick up steam - and some prominent Iraqis are starting to sound off against the operations. Notably, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a pretty strongly worded condemnation:

Iraq’s prime minister sharply criticized a U.S.-Iraqi attack Monday on a Shiite militia stronghold in Baghdad, breaking with his American partners on security tactics as the United States launches a major operation to secure the capital. [...]

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s criticism followed a predawn air and ground attack on an area of Sadr City, stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. [...]

He apologized to the Iraqi people for the operation and said, “This won’t happen again.”

Friction between the U.S. military and the Iraqi government emerged as the U.S. military kicks off a military operation to secure Baghdad streets after a surge in Sunni-Shiite violence — much of it blamed on al-Sadr’s militia.

In a recent post, I wondered out loud about the possible motives behind the Iraqi government's decision to give al-Sadr its blessing to stage the massive protest last week that was heavily infused with vehement anti-Israeli and anti-US messages.

The fact that the Iraqi government signed off on the protest is worth noting. This would seem to indicate one of two things - neither of which is particularly comforting. Either the Iraqi government approves of the message, or it is too fearful of al-Sadr's power and influence to try to put the brakes on public displays such as this. Of course, al-Sadr himself is a major player in that government, which certainly constrains its latitude (and belies its will) to act against him.

As the current article indicates, al-Sadr is deeply enmeshed in Maliki's coalition and represents a necessary ally for Maliki's government. Ultimately, Maliki is probably more comfortable with al-Sadr than we would prefer:

Al-Sadr has emerged as a major figure in the majority Shiite community and a pillar of support for al-Maliki. The prime minister’s remarks underscore the difficulties facing the Americans in bringing order to Baghdad at a time when Iraqis are increasingly resentful of the presence of foreign troops.

Yeah, and I don't think events transpiring in Lebanon are doing anything to ingratiate our troops to the local population.

All in all, I think Maliki's condemnation is a bad sign. It seems to indicate that when push comes to shove, he is not really all that serious about disbanding Shiite militias - though he may pay lip service to the mission and show a little more willingness to act against rival Sunni groups. This passage in particular should raise an eyebrow our two [emph. added]:

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, said he was “very angered and pained” by the operation, warning that it could undermine his efforts toward national reconciliation.

Reconciliation cannot go hand in hand with operations that violate the rights of citizens this way,” al-Maliki said in a statement on government television.

Uh, last time I checked, it wasn't supposed to be al-Sadr's folks that were the targets of efforts at 'reconciliation' - it was the Sunnis. Maybe Maliki has other ideas in mind when he talks 'reconcilliation.'

Either way, as I've mentioned before, the US is playing with fire by antagonizing al-Sadr at a time when his popularity is at its highest point. Even our Kurdish allies seem to recognize the precariousness of the situation:

After the Sadr City attack, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, met with the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., to discuss security operations in Baghdad. Talabani said he told Casey “it is in no one’s interest to have a confrontation” with al-Sadr’s movement.

And there's good reason to be concerned. We're currently pulling combat troops away from insurgent hotbeds in Anbar and Diyala provinces in order to beef up security in Baghdad. If our troops get bogged down there fighting al-Sadr's forces, the rest of Iraq will suffer more than it already will by the diversion of manpower.

I'm starting to get the impression that our mission is taking on the characteristics of a reverse oil-spot strategy whereby our sphere of influence, and territory controlled, is shrinking and shrinking ever inward toward the Green Zone.

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