Saturday, March 18, 2006
Boston Globe, March 6, 2006, Pg. 1, Filling A Void, Iraqi Militias Assert Authority, Outlawed units expand reach, By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff, BAGHDAD -- In the ranks of the Mahdi Army militia, the deadly sectarian fighting that took Iraq to the verge of civil war wasn't so much a crisis as an opportunity.A warrior sees every crisis as an opportunity. Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is composed of primitive "warriors", who are very comfortable with inflicting violence. Warriors who have no stake in civil order in Iraq. In fact, they would rather see civil war than civil order. Sadr and his army will never play by our rules. The many disappointments of reconstruction in Iraq will bring these warriors back again and again. We can outlaw their militias and declare cease fires, but these primitive warriors do not respect treaties, and do not follow orders they don't like.
Moqtada al-Sadr is a supporter of violence in Iraq. He believes the clergy should play a direct role in politics. Unfortunately, his concept of political dialogue is broad enough to include the murder of rival Shiite clerics like the Grand Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al Khoi on April 10, 2003, (right after the fall of Saddam Hussein), denouncing the members of the Iraqi interim government as puppets in a series of sermons that started as early as July of 2003, and of course, Sadr's supporters have fought multiple bloody battles against U.S.-led troops since 2003.
Popular support in Iraq for reconstruction efforts will increasingly erode as long as characters like Sadr continue to play divisive roles. Sadr has never been willing to give reconstruction a chance. He has been a thorn on our side since the first days after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Sadr has been nothing but a source of instability in Iraq; many times he has called for a national rebellion against foreign troops in Iraq.
Sadr is particularly popular in Sadr City (named after his father), the over-crowded Baghdad slum where many Iraqi Shiites have been encouraged to cast their lot with Sadr's militia group. Sadr City has been suffering from neglect since the time of Saddam when the slum was called Saddam City. Sadr City has been the site of some of the fiercest fighting between U.S. troops and Shiite militias. More than Najaf or Karbala, Sadr City will always be the center of any Shiite rebellion in Iraq.
We had made some progress in Sadr City. Progress that Sadr tries to negate. The residents of this sprawling slum will be, for the foreseeable future, somewhat wary of American presence, but they have responded positively to reconstruction efforts. Money, clean water, and electricity, along with security are always good ways to make friends. However, Sadr's vision does not include American-led reconstruction efforts.
If you thought is was tricky to fight the Mahdists inside the Holy City of Najaf wait until you see combat is a 3-million person slum. The key to victory in a place like that lies with the Iraqis themselves. Any increase in U.S. led combat operations in Sadr City will inevitably stir our over-sensitive Western consciences and it can also incite more demonstrations throughout the Islamic world.
Sadr may finally give in to a just and sincere peace--but only when his other options include Bradley fighting vehicles, Apache gunships and F-16 jets. A thug like Sadr will not be cowed by spoken reprimands from diplomats and politicians. Al Sadr represents a major threat for U.S. plans in Iraq. He is opposed to any kind of U.S. influence in Iraq. He has managed to carve out an important role in the Iraqi political scene, but is not content with peaceful solutions. He exploited the outbreak of Shiite-Sunni violence to expand his reach. He is linked to radical Islamic groups (Hizballah) and regimes (Iran, Syria) in the region. The Mahdi Army is does nothing but weaken the Iraqi government's authority.
Sadr's vision for Iraq is very different from what the U.S. would like to see. Sadr belives that Iraq should become an Islamic state. There is no room for true democracy in Sadr's theocratic vision.
We have to come up with a strategy for success in Iraq. It is not too late, but time is running out. We have to help the Iraqis rebuild their nation while dealing with insurgents, militias and an impending civil war. Many young, unemployed Iraqis seek the immediate relief of joining a militia that fills the void of what is perceived as a slow reconstruction. The more the militias grow the more the chances increase of a full-blown civil war in Iraq.
Establishing security should be our first priority in Iraq. Security is the crucial precondition for any functioning state.
For 30 years Iraq was neglected by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, who spent more time building palaces than creating a viable nation. We've had 3 years to rebuild from this neglect. And we've have done under downright dangerous combat conditions, reconstruction fighting insurgents and militias along the way. What sometimes saddens me is that we need to keep reminding the American people how much has been accomplished.