Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Who's That Peeking In My Window? Nobody Now

Despite the fact that Ayatollah al-Sistani unceremoniously quashed the plans to forge an alternative political coalition aimed at diminishing Moqtada al-Sadr's influence in the Iraqi government (effectively rendering those plans a non-starter), certain aspects of the overarching strategy to marginalize Sadr appear to be alive and kicking. US military personnel in Iraq may have just, intentionally or unintentionally, triggered a series of events likely to culminate in some sort of heightened confrontation with Sadr's faction.

Tension was mounting in the Iraqi city of Najaf after an American soldier killed a senior ally of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during a raid on his house.

Sadr supporters and local police told AFP Wednesday that US and Iraqi soldiers had stormed the family home of Sahib al-Ameri, the president of a pro-Sadr political foundation in the holy city of Najaf, and shot him dead.

The US military confirmed one of its troops had shot Ameri in an overnight raid by Iraqi forces, backed up by coalition military advisers.

A statement said Ameri was implicated in recent bomb attacks on US and Iraqi forces, and was shot by an adviser after he fled to the roof of his house and aimed an assault rifle at an Iraqi soldier. [...]

Hundreds of mourners marched from Sadr's office in Najaf to the revered shrine of Imam Ali chanting anti-American slogans and denouncing Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as a traitor for working with US officials.

If this was a case of a tense situation getting away from the soldiers on the ground, then it is possible that the ripple effect will be minimal. Possible, but not guaranteed. But if this represents the opening salvo in a reinvigorated anti-Sadr military campaign, hold on to your hats.

As some, like Vali Nasr, have speculated, the recent talk of a "surge" in the number of troops in Iraq could be part of this larger plan to militarily neutralize Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. As Nasr explains, however, such an operation could prove exceedingly difficult, and quite possibly beyond our means - even if our efforts are buttressed by a temporary injection of more troops [emphasis mine throughout]:

New troops will be in Iraq not to police the streets and hold the line against the creeping violence, but to expand the war by taking on the Shia militias. This is an escalation strategy. Will it work; maybe, maybe not. But it runs the risk that it may very well provoke a Shia insurgency—something Iraq has not so far witnessed. Thus far the U.S. has faced a Sunni insurgency (which by most estimates continues to account for 80% of U.S. casualties), and sectarian violence in which Shias and Sunnis are killing each other....Shia militias, unlike the insurgency, are not targeting American troops. But it looks like the administration is set to change that...By going to war with the increasingly popular Sadr Washington runs the danger of losing the Shia altogether.

Wrong-headed military and political steps provoked the Sunni insurgency in 2003-04, and then more mistakes helped fuel sectarian violence in 2005-06. Another set of mistakes can turn 2007 into the year that U.S. provoked a Shia insurgency. That may prove to be the mother of all mistakes. Hell in Iraq will come when the Shia south—accounting for 60% of the country’s population, largest urban areas, oil, supply lines to Kuwait, and only gateway to the Persian Gulf—rises up against the U.S. Then we either have to get out of Iraq altogether and very quickly, or we will have to commit to many more troop surges to deal with the problems created by the first one.

It is noteworthy that Nasr re-casts the "surge" strategy as an "escalation strategy" because the fine print that the "surge" policy's authors are putting on the contract at this eleventh hour supports such an assessment. Matt Yglesias passes along news that committed surge-nts Jack Keane and Frederick Kagan have rushed to clarify their intentions before the ribbon is cut:

...Keane and Fred Kagan take to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that a three or six month surge "would virtually ensure defeat." Instead we need "a surge of at least 30,000 combat troops lasting 18 months or so."

Once you're talking about an 18 month deployment, of course, you're not really looking at a surge.

John Podhoretz only reinforces the Orwellian nature of the "surge" framing:

The key here is time. A "temporary" troop surge will be a disaster.

Leaving aside the semantics, if the Bush administration truly means to open a second front in Iraq, against one of the most popular Shiite leaders in that country, then I would push for a partial redeployment of troops instead.

But the key here is location. An "incomplete" partial redeployment that doesn't remove all troops from Iraq will be a disaster.

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