Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pimpin' Maliki's Ride

A couple of weeks back, Swopa scoffed at the idea of a potential US-backed coup in Iraq - despite some rather ominous rumblings. Aside from the observation that such a coup would likely alienate a large portion of the majority Shiites (who currently enjoy the fruits of the democratic process) thus swelling the ranks of our enemies amongst Iraq's population, Swopa pointed out that at this point in time, a coup would be more or less meaningless.

Since the Iraqi government has thus far proven to be an ineffective shell lacking a monopoly on the use of force (or even occupying the primary role in a field of armed competitors) and other manifestations of sovereignty - and since its only potency stems from its tenuously loyal constituent parts - what exactly would the prevailing instigators of a coup have to show for their efforts besides "this lousy T-shirt"? Observerd Swopa:

Since nearly all of the relevant power in the country is essentially outside of government control already, or at best only paying lip service to it, staging a coup in Iraq would be like trying to steal a car that's already been stripped for parts and is sitting on wooden blocks.

With this reality no doubt confronting Maliki and Bush administration officials in Washington, it appears that an effort is underway to bring Maliki's jalopy into the shop for some bling. In particular, there has been a recent push to crack-down on the various militias that have been implementing a peversion of the golden rule: he who has the guns, makes the rules.

So, for the past couple of weeks, US military forces, with the increasing participation of Iraqi forces, have been sweeping areas for arms and militants, and, in some recent cases, engaging Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army in actual armed combat.

While there is an obvious need to rein in the Mahdi army, as well as other militas, in order to consolidate the central government's power over a splintering Iraq, attempting such maneuvers is problematic to say the least. For one, al-Sadr controls the largest single bloc in the Iraqi parliament, and is a major player in the ruling coalition government, so cracking down on his forces takes on a surreal circularity as observed by Matt Yglesias:

And what kind of sense does it make to fight Mahdi Army militiamen on the one hand, and on the other hand have the leaders of the Sadr Movement sitting in parliament and in the cabinet?

This has led to a predictably schizophrenic approach, whereby Prime Minister Maliki repeats his stated goal of disbanding all militias (including al-Sadr's), but then loudly complains when US forces attempt to achieve just that effect. It's hard to tell whether Maliki is paying lip service to the Sadr factions by feigning outrage, or rather is paying lip service to Bush administration officials by feigning cooperation along this front. Or perhaps some mixture of both.

Either way, Iraqi forces did not display a particularly encouraging level of ability or resolve in the recent clash with Sadr's men, and the two sides have retreated to some sort of cease fire - while allowing Sadr to maintain his seemingly incongruous dual identities as both officially recognized political force, and outlaw firebrand. In fact, if one kicks the tires on the new Iraqi government forces, it's easy to detect a familiar pattern of conflicting loyalties, dubious commitment and questionable motive.

From Sunni areas, as recounted in an article in the New York Times last week:

In the Haditha triad, Col. Jebbar Abass...commanded an Iraqi battalion that started out with about 700 soldiers in the fall of 2005. It was now down to about 400 troops. Since almost a third of his battalion is on leave at any one time, that means that Colonel Abass can field about 270 soldiers on any given day, a useful supplement to the Marine forces in and around Haditha but hardly enough to enable the Americans to draw back.

...Marine commanders believe that Iraqi troop levels in Anbar have finally bottomed out and may be slowly starting to improve. But what kind of exit strategy is this when Iraqi soldiers in some of Iraq’s most contested areas have been leaving faster than the Americans?

And Shiite areas, according to an article in today's Times:

A group of [100] Iraqi soldiers recently refused to go to Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, to help restore order there, a senior American military officer said Monday.

"The majority of this particular unit was Shia, and they felt — the leadership of that unit and their soldiers — like they were needed down there in Maysan," General Pittard told reporters in a videoconference from Iraq.

Though the episode involves only a small fraction of the 10-division Iraqi Army, it points to an important issue. The new Iraqi government wants to build a national military, one that is ethnically diverse and can be deployed anywhere in Iraq. It does not want to field a military that is essentially a collection of local units with regional loyalties.

But many Iraqis are reluctant to serve far from their home provinces. Sunnis in Anbar Province, for example, are reluctant to join the army if they will be sent far from home to predominantly Shiite areas. Shiites are often hesitant to serve in overwhelmingly Sunni regions.

This is not the first time that Iraqi soldiers have refused to deploy to a distant area. A large number of soldiers from a predominantly Kurdish unit in northern Iraq, the Second Battalion, Third Brigade of the Second Iraqi Division, refused to go to Ramadi, where American Army troops have been involved in a tough fight to take the city back from insurgents, General Pittard noted.

Speaking of the recently brokered cease-fire between the Mahdi army and the Iraqi government forces, there was an interesting tidbit from the negotiations (that prak alluded to in the sidebar on American Footprints): namely, that a representative from long-time Sadr rival, SCIRI (which controls its own militia, the Badr Brigade), was the go-between chosen [emph. mine throughout]:

Khalil Jalil Hamza, the governor of Diwaniya, later shuttled to Mr. Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf for discussions of a cease-fire, Sadr officials said. By 5:30 p.m., the battled had ended.

Mr. Hamza is a senior official in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party that is an intense rival of Mr. Sadr’s group. The Mahdi Army and the military wing of the Supreme Council, called the Badr Brigade, have fought pitched battles several times in Baghdad and the south in recent years. Mr. Hamza’s role as the provincial governor suggests that members of the Badr Brigade may have been involved in the fighting on Monday.

This may or may not indicate that the official Iraqi government is throwing in with SCIRI and their militia as the more attractive option in an attempt to squeeze out al-Sadr. However, SCIRI's close ties to Iran, and the oft-reported brutality of the Badr Brigade in dealing with Sunni elements, may make this a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other - without providing for the real consolidation of power, sectarian restraint and monopolization on the use of force desired for the Iraqi centralized government.

Speaking of consolidation of power, the other primary power node in Iraq (the Sunni variety) has been acting to soup up it's own ride for the sequel to Fast and Furious: Baghdad Drift. According to the LA Times (via Swopa):

The insurgency has increased its use of roadside bombs against U.S. and Iraqi forces since Zarqawi's death in June, and in some ways is stronger than when he was alive. . . . The movement lost a wily strategist, but his successor, whom U.S. officials identify as Abu Ayyub Masri, an Egyptian, appears more flexible in recruitment.

"Zarqawi was a hard-liner in his recruitment practices," said a Pentagon consultant who requested anonymity. "This [new] guy is using a big-tent approach. People who were previously excluded from Al Qaeda in Iraq because they lack exceeding levels of fanaticism are now allowed in."

This Sunni hot-rod represents yet another reason why cracking down on Sadr's forces is so difficult: there's more than one car to chase in this hunt, and only a limited number of US military police prowlers. Our forces are spread thin as is trying, unsuccessfully, to defeat a Sunni insurgency. Fighting a Shiite insurgency at the same time would be impossible. Yet al-Sadr may be growing more powerful the longer he is allowed to operate with impunity.

Not a particularly attractive situation for Maliki, or Bush administration officials, trying to untie this knot. As the song goes, it's hard out here for a pimp.

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