Friday, January 26, 2007

Neutralize Sadr

With the focus of our new operations aimed, in part, on neutralizing Sadr's militias (and other militias backed by the Iranians) who have killed large numbers of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, we have been surprised by Sadr's apparent submission to our still-emerging push in the capital.

I've been convinced that we must take down Sadr and neutralize his organization (and others) so that the majority of Sunni Arabs will feel safe enough to surrender and turn on the insurgents and terrorists who fight and kill in their name. But I worried that Sadr was too popular with too many Shias to directly confront. Lose the Shias and our war is pointless and impossible to wage.

Though I asked again and again since 2004 why Sadr was still alive, I recognized that the Iraqi government might have been right that the years from 2004 to 2006 were not right to take him down. What was probably a good idea in 2003 could have been a bad idea in 2004, 2005, or 2006. It is at least debatable.

And could be a good idea again in 2007 to confront Sadr. Sadr may have squandered his good will according to the LAT article:

Playing the rebellious warlord was far simpler. Three years ago, when he was backed into a corner by the Iraqi government and U.S. forces, Sadr lashed out with a fury that shook Iraq and the region. He launched a formidable uprising against U.S. forces that lasted months, particularly in the southern city of Najaf, and he emerged a political giant.

Bruised but empowered after months of confronting U.S. forces, Sadr then entered the political process. He did so warily, coaxed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani into joining a Shiite unity bloc for the January 2005 elections.

At the end of 2005, when new elections were held, Sadr took part more wholeheartedly and garnered 30 seats. When the time came for the Shiite coalition to choose a prime minister, Sadr's support gave Maliki the job by a single vote.

Since then, the country's healthcare and transportation infrastructures have visibly deteriorated under the control of Sadrist leaders. Hospitals, already strained to the breaking point by daily trauma casualties, have become dirtier, bloodier and more poorly equipped and staffed.

"The people who he depended on to run the institutions performed very badly," said Yasseri, the former editor. "We thought we were going to give Iraqis their rights back and eliminate corruption and nepotism. Unfortunately, corruption and nepotism have become part of the Sadr movement."

Some Sadr supporters have begun turning against the movement.

"People have the right to call it a corrupt government since it hasn't achieved the simplest Iraqi ambition," said Fattah Sheik, a Sadrist member of parliament who says he's breaking with the bloc to pursue an independent party. The Al Mahdi army, the fast-growing and powerful militia Sadr launched as a social and political movement to protect impoverished Shiites, is now perceived in many areas as just another armed group terrorizing ordinary Iraqis.

"Once, if there was a problem in a neighborhood, people would call upon the Mahdi army," lawmaker Fayyad said. "Now no one trusts them."

As those troubles mounted over the last year, Sadr grew frustrated with mainstream politics, Yasseri said. Last fall, the cleric once again raised the anti-occupation banner that had served him well in 2004. In November, he demanded that Maliki refuse to attend a meeting with President Bush in Jordan until the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawal.

Sadr may be afraid that elements nominally under his control will get him in a shooting match with US and Iraqi government forces. And he may worry that his support is too thin to allow him to survive such a clash.

While many war supporters have wanted a direct confrontation with Sadr's militia like in August 2004 (only going for his throat this time), I've not favored that. If he rose up against us, of course we should take the opportunity to crush him. But otherwise I figured we should surge an effort against Sadr and take down the leadership of the radical killing elements while gaining the defection of more moderate elements to become local defense militias supervised by the Iraqi government. But my worries about Sadr's popularity may be misplaced. It might be safe to confront him. But if he is weak, is it smart to do so without provocation?

If Sadr is as weak as this article suggests, we can move forward in the manner I suggested without the high risk of provoking a broad Shia reaction against us in sympathy with Sadr. If Sadr is just trying to lie low to ride out our surge, doing this will take down his forces without a high profile confrontation with Shias.

Ultimately, Sadr must face justice for his crimes. But right now, we must neutralize him and his organization as a death squad. And I never meant "neutralize" as a euphemism--I've said "kill him" when I meant we should kill him. Sadr's weakness may mean we can take out the leaders beneath him and neutralize the Shia death squads, and prevent them from rising up on Tehran's orders as a faux popular rebellion.

This will be a major victory in pursuit of victory in Iraq.