Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Grab the Yoke From the Pilot and Just Fly the Whole Mess Into the Sea

What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.

-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

There is something reminiscent of the abyss's temptation in the increasingly desperate gambits entertained by the Bush administration in Iraq. For example, when faced with the prospect of a looming meltdown of the armed forces due to the strains of prolonged and repeated deployments, the Bush team's response was to increase the number of troops deployed via The Surge. Is it really better to burn out than to fade away?

More recently, the Bush team has resumed its on-again, off-again strategy of targeting Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. In this, it appears that the US might have finally worn down the resolve of Prime Minister Maliki who has gone from shielding his political patron to stepping up the anti-Sadr rhetoric - and the use of the Iraqi armed forces against Sadr's cadres. That SIIC (formerly SCIRI) is supportive of this pincer move should come as no surprise. SIIC and Sadr have been fierce, often violent, rivals for some time - battling over the Shiite south's natural resources and lucrative shrine patronage.

In response, Sadr has matched the pitch of the rhetoric, and flexed his muscles by bringing out thousands of Shiites in protests in Baghdad this past weekend. Further, an article at IraqSlogger suggests that Sadr's bloc may in fact introduce the no-confidence measure that was previously discussed in Sunni legislative camps. This legislative move could come close to taking down Maliki's government. Even if it fails in that objective, though, Maliki's ruling coalition will be whittled down to a bare majority - rendering his regime's ability to pass legislation all but non-existent.

According to the more optimistic reading, these threats from Sadr constitute warning shots fired off of Maliki's bow (and SIIC's) in order to compel Maliki et al to back off. The pessimistic read is that the die has been cast and, thus, that these tensions are manifestations of a deeper schism. Such a schism would not bode well for US forces.

Pushing Sadr and his Mahdi Army out of the government, and targeting his forces through an intense and concerted military effort, will likely turn Sadr and his militia into unequivocal enemies of the occupation. Up until now Sadr's position in the government (and the US military's tacit tolerance of the existence of his militia) has kept such hostilities at bay (though flare ups have occurred). Now, we could be entering a period of all-out war between Sadr and the coalition.

If that happens, those long supply lines (carrying fuel and myriad other vital war-making provisions) could become a prime target for a disgruntled and cornered Sadr. His militia is large enough to cause considerable problems for us both in connection with supply line disruption, and in day-to-day violence in and around Baghdad. His popularity is such that moving against him will come at considerable costs in terms of pushing more Iraqis into armed resistance of the occupation.

Against the backdrop of key Republican defections, and increasing political pressure to end a war that has shown no progress only continued chaos, you'd think that the Bush administration would be seeking ways to tamp the violence and reduce the frictions and costs associated with our continued troop presence (at inflated surge levels no less). Instead, they rush headlong in the other direction.

Someone needs to talk them down from the ledge, assuming it's not too late. While ending the occupation in an expeditious manner would be a benefit to the US, this type of collapse would be the worst, and most pyrrhic, way to achieve that outcome. The tragic part is that while Bush appears seduced downward by the void, it is our troops - as well as the Iraqi people - that will be the ones plummeting to meet the ground if he jumps.

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