Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Shallowness of Sadr

The threat posed by Sadr and Iranian-backed terrorists to the Iraqi government is potentially the most potent threat because it comes from the 60% majority of Shias in Iraq.

But the immediate threat is low since most Iraqis want nothing to do with Iranian-backed mullah rule. And these militias, other than the Iranian-backed killers, are far less effective as fighters than the al Qaeda and Baathist killers that we've already defeated.

The Sunni Arabs are defeated in the sense that they no longer pose a threat to the central government. They still fight on in far lower strength, obviously. How long they sputter on if we resolutely pursue them is the main question.

The Shia thugss, having made a serious attempt in spring 2004 and another in August 2004 that were beaten down by our forces, are no longer even as potent as they were in 2004. Today, the Shia militias are mostly criminal gangs:

In the last year, the number of terror attacks has sharply declined, as the Shia Arab criminals and militias are not interested in slaughtering civilians. They were interested in maintaining control over neighborhoods, criminal enterprises, and augmenting political control. Many of these militias were supported by Iran, a neighbor that wanted to have more control over what went on inside Iraq. But Iran is run by the Shia clergy, and the prospect of a religious dictatorship in Iraq turned off many Iraqis. This was no secret to anyone, and the Iraqi government, run by more independent minded Shia, finally agreed that the Iran backed militias could not be tolerated. This has led to a recent campaign to take apart the more troublesome factions. The worst of the lot are in Basra, where Shia militias make a lot of money off the oil and port operations down there. These gangs were getting greedy, and stealing more than the government was willing to tolerate. Thus in the last week, thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers moved into Basra and began arresting members of the Mahdi Army (run by Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr). At the same time, police moved in on Mahdi Army groups in Baghdad. But Basra was where the money was, and the fighting was expected to be long and difficult. On March 26th, the government gave the Mahdi Army three days to surrender, or face some real violence. For some Shia gangsters, this seems to mean American smart bombs. That rumor is all over Basra, and the bad guys are truly scared. Hiding out in a mosque won't help, because American ground troops are not involved. Iraqi cops have no problem clearing out a mosque.

They are defending their gang turf but they are in it for the money and if the Iraqi government is as resolute as the words imply, at some point the gangs will disperse since their members aren't looking for a vague reward in the afterlife--they want benefits now. And being dead harms that ambition.

Right now, there is a lot of smoke involved in the Iraqi campaign to defang the Shia militias in the south and in Baghdad. What is not clear is whether the boasting of the Sadrists can take them very far in a violent confrontation with the government security forces backed by our air power and troops if necessary.

So far, Maliki doesn't appear ready to back down:

The Iraqi leader made his pledge to tribal leaders in the Basra area as military operations continued for a fourth day with stiff resistance.

"We have made up our minds to enter this battle and we will continue until the end. No retreat," he said in a speech broadcast on Iraqi state TV.

Strategypage says this fight will be tough and will go on a while. I imagine this refers to the long process of rooting out gangs and the corruption they fostered. I can't imagine the overt fighting dragging on if the Iraqi security forces keep the pressure up on the Shia gangs.

The Iranian-backed killers are a different story altogether, but they are much smaller and without the sea of Shia gangs to swim in will be easier to tackle. Just as the lack of Sunni Arab resistance has made the Shia gangs more vulnerable to a government campaign right now.

The Sadrists need to be taken down. And they must be taken down well before the provincial elections to keep Shia gangs from corrupting the election process through armed intimidation.

I think the government has the power to take Sadr down and isolate the Iranian-backed forces for a further campaign against these tougher but smaller forces. We shall see if the government and Sadr agree.