Friday, December 22, 2006

Don't Lose the Shias

I break my New York Times embargo to link to a good piece by Reuel Marc Gerecht about dealing with Sadr:

In fact, attacking Mr. Sadr now and elevating the Supreme Council [Adil Abdul Mahdi's group] is likely to accomplish the exact opposite of what we want. And it shouldn’t be that hard to see why: the sine qua non for peace in Iraq, and for a democratic future for the country, has always been unity among the Shiites. Any violent struggle between the Mahdi Army and Supreme Council could provoke anarchy throughout the entire Arab Shiite zone, including Iraq’s holy cities and the oil-rich south. As bad as things seem now, such Shiite strife could impoverish all of Arab Iraq, dropping the non-Kurdish regions to an Afghan-like subsistence level.

This is an excellent point. We can't afford to alienate the Shias if we want to win in Iraq. If we do there is little point in staying in Iraq. We truly would be fighting virtually the entire Iraqi population. Remember, we liberated the Shias from Saddam's grip.

Which is why I've mentioned in the past that if we go after Moqtada Sadr we must also go after the Sunni insurgency just as hard to avoid looking like we are betraying the Shias. Conspiracies die hard among the Shias who have been betrayed by us before. (Executing Saddam would go a long way to ending the thought that we might put Saddam back in charge to restore order.)

And it is why in 2004 I advised going after the Sunni half of the insurrection hard while fighting very carefully in the Shia south to avoid alienating the Shias:

I worry about the Baathists because they have the means and motive to resist hard in the short run and are the ones killing our troops. The Shias are friendly for the most part and although Sadr is defying us, he isn't terribly effective and the Shias consider him more of an idiot brother-in-law than a legitimate voice of the Shia.

In the long run, Strategypage is correct. Since the Sunni Baathists are a minority in a geographically distinct region, they can't on their own retake Iraq. The Shias, who represent the majority, must be kept on our side to keep Iraq friendly—hence the worry about the Shias as the more important problem.

I guess I figure we can keep the Shias content by transferring power to a Shia-dominated interim government on June 30 and transitioning to a democracy where numbers will count (with minority rights and rule of law established so losers don't reach for their AKs and RPGs).

Given this distinction, I'm actually glad that we have been softer on the Sadr uprising. I'm still upset we are in a ceasefire with the Baathists in Fallujah, mind you. But we can't storm Najaf the same way to get the idiot Sadr. Najaf is a holy site and Sadr would gain sympathy for being attacked in there. Indeed, were I the Iranians, I'd have the Iranian contingent of the Mahdi Army in Najaf primed for a fight to the death to provoke the destruction of holy sites and the death of Shia civilians. Shoot, I'd blow up the holy sites myself since I'd be pretty sure the Americans wouldn't do it even accidentally.

We succeeded in 2004. The question is could we fight Sadr today and emerge with the Shias still backing us? Times change and the tactics that worked on Sadr in 2004 won't likely work in 2007. Sadr is no longer the idiot brother-in-law. Perhaps a third of the Shias are sympathetic. And others perhaps would not take kindly to an American campaign against their own SOB.

So perhaps we need to rethink how we deal with Sadr. The Shias seem to still need the protection of the militias against the Sunni terrorists of Saddam's boys and al Qaeda.

Could the Iraqi government split the less radical and bloody of the militias from Sadr by recognizing them and arming them but with guarantees they will simply defend their neighborhoods? With trusted government forces placed in the areas to watch the militias, of course.

Only then, could the Iraqis with our support target Sadr and the leaders of the more bloody groups with arrests without stripping the Shias of protection from Sunni killers.

And of course, coupled with an offensive by Iraqi and American forces against the Sunnis insurgents, it would not look at all like a betrayal of the Shias.

Plus, with the Shia death squads reined in and Coalition forces bearing down on the Sunnis who resist, perhaps we will finally push the majority of Sunnis to abandon the insurgencies for their own protection in favor of supporting the new government in order to live.

Sadr is the biggest long-term threat to the Iraqi government. But as frustrated as I am that we didn't nail him when we had him by the short hairs in 2004, that doesn't mean that a 2004-style military campaign carried out in 2007 that leads to the death or capture of Sadr is wise. Indeed, we might see another major shrine blow up but with our troops blamed as I feared in 2004. Given Samarra in February, is this terribly unlikely?

So how would we neutralize Sadr without a US military campaign that risks alienating the Shias?

Whatever we do--surge or no surge--we can't risk losing the Shias. To do that is to lose the war. We'd have to pull out and hope we can bend events indirectly in our favor. No surge of American troops is big enough to cope with fighting the Sunnis and Shias. Nor would it make much strategic sense.

UPDATE: Sistani won't bless an alliance of Iraqi political parties that excludes Sadr:

An official close to al-Sistani, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the cleric "will not bless nor support any new bloc or front. He only supports the unity of the Shiites."

If you want to look at a major difference between 2004 and 2007, look no farther. In 2004, Sistani blessed our military offensive against Sadr's Mahdi Army after his revolt even as fighting took place around important mosques in Najaf. Now Sistani won't risk alienating Shias by proposing to politically sideline Sadr.

Sadr is the biggest threat to Iraqi democracy, but he has moved beyond our capacity to deal with him on our own. The Shia Iraqis must do that.

UPDATE: Or is Sadr a known idiot brother-in-law (via Hugh Hewitt and before that, Instapundit) as IraqPundit notes?

Iraqis know he's an ass. Lots of people in the region know he's an ass. (One of Lebanon's leaders referred to Moktada the other day while speaking to the press. Comparing him to Hassan Nasrallah, he called Moktada "the deranged one.") The
fact is that Iraqis, after decades of living in fear under Baathist thugs, are simply afraid of Al Sadr's terrorist gangs.

I've long been critical that we let Sadr live after Baghdad fell. He should have been nailed in 2003. And certainly by August 2004 he should have been dead or jailed. I've long been concerned that we don't betray the Shias in trying to persuade the Sunni Arabs to halt their insurgency. And this year I've been well aware that efforts to get the Sunnis to give up are complicated by the Shia militias who kill Sunni Arabs.

So while I want to control the Shia militias in order to soothe the Sunni Arabs in order to stop the Sunnis from fighting, I've worried that Shia admiration of Sadr could unravel the course of action at the beginning. If nailing Sadr inspires a sizable portion of Shias to oppose us, we are lost.

Gerecht says Sadr has popularity now that he lacked in 2004. IraqPundit says he is an ass.

The correct course of action depends on who is right. If we help the Iraqi government take Sadr down, will Shias be grateful or angry? And answering this question determines whether one major reason for surging US troops is worth doing.

And I just don't know who is right. Surely, plenty of Iraqis know Sadr is an ass. But that assessment does not rule out that it is equally true that millions of Shias look up to Sadr to some significant degree, and that taking him down will turn too many Shias against us.

I hope Gates is getting better information than I am.