Monday, April 14, 2008

Fighting The Shia Militias

       Years of sweeping one of Iraq's biggest problems under the rug has finally come home to roost. 
    Since Sunday, reports indicate 19 Americans have died in Iraq.  That's the worst week in Iraq this year.  It is up significantly from the average of casualties over the past few months, which have been running at just under 40 per month.
    Conventional wisdom holds that violence in Iraq is bad.  But in this case, perhaps that's not as true as usual.
    Much of the fighting is centered on delivering a major blow to the Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army, run by renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.  This is no rag-tag militia of no account.
    Estimates have held steady for years that the militia has between 70,000 and 80,000 members.  Al Sadr is supported by Iran politically and almost certainly financially.  And Iran almost certainly gives the Mahdi Army and other militias the worst type of roadside bombs, called "explosively formed projectiles", or EFPs, which are highly effective in killing Americans. 
    The Mahdi Army is bad.  It is out of control.  Last year, for several months in mid-year, half of the American casualties in Baghdad were caused by Shiite militias; of them, the Mahdi Army is the biggest and most dangerous one.
    In this context, a reckoning is long overdue.  Reports indicate that reckoning was originally scheduled for June by American and Iraqi forces, but was precipitously brought forward by the Maliki government more than two weeks ago, when Iraqi soldiers launched an assault on Shiite militias in Basra. 
    That rush was not without cost.  Any assault in Basra was almost bound to fail without meticulous and extensive preparation, given that the British moved out of the center of Basra last year and retreated to the city's airport, allowing Shiite militias and organized criminals to assume creeping control of the place. 
    In Iraq there have only ever been two main opponents.  The biggest, most urgent security threat came from the Sunni insurgents and their al Qaeda allies.  That threat has fallen away as tens of thousands of Sunnis switched to the side of the government, which has put their erstwhile al Qaeda allies in a real bind, as they have been pushed farther from Baghdad into Diyala Province and Mosul in the north.
    The other main opposition was always going to be the Shiite militias, of which al Sadr is by far the most notorious and violence-prone leader.  America and its Iraqi allies either would not or could not address this problem - until now - the thinking being that it was too difficult to fight both Shias and Sunnis at the same time, and the Sunnis took precedence.
    Instead the Shia problem was put on hold.  Policy makers seemed to assume either the Shiite militias would fade away, as the legitimate Shia government co-opted them into the political process, or would eventually require a military solution when spare troops became available.
    It appears that with the Sunni insurgency on the wane, the Maliki government feels those extra forces are now available.
    As the casualty figures flow in, one hopes the cost of the recent fighting will not be too high.  But one hopes even more fervently that this spasm of violence will bring about the true denouement of the al Sadr problem, and that his ultimate reckoning will not just fizzle out.  The problem cannot be allowed to fester, to reappear again another day.  If it is not solved now, when will it be?

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