Posted by Lex, on August 29, 2006
Two years ago this August *, coalition ground troops wrested the Shi’a holy city of Najaf from Moqtada al Sadr’s mehdi army, a group of mostly Bagdhad-based thugs, louts and impoverished goons that had encamped there, threatening the clerical base of the more moderate Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. Sistani – the leading Shi’a cleric in Arabia – hewed to that sect’s tradition of separating the crerisy from mere political policy. Al Sadr, on the other hand, less invested than Sistani with theological street cred, used his revered father’s name to build a militia of his own out of human detritus of the Shi’a slums in eastern Baghdad, and sought to grasp his way to power through the barrel of a gun.
Having dealt his militia a stunning blow in Najaf, many of us hoped that final postage would be paid to this murderous upstart, who is still technically under warrant for the post-war killing of a rival cleric. Throughout the siege, coalition spokesmen emphasized the importance of killing or capturing al Sadr. But he was allowed to flee the wreckage that he and his people had wrought. And free, as it turns out, to cause trouble elsewhere.
The coalition flinched in the summer of 2004, alarmed by an Arab street whose outrage had been fanned by new and bloody-minded media outlets like Al Jazeera. Also of concern no doubt was the specter of coalition troops caught in a two-front war with both the Shi’a masses to the south and an emergently violent resistance in the Sunni heartland to the west. US policy makers – whose hopes for a quick and easy end to the violence looks almost charmingly naive two years on – looked the devil in the eye and blinked, striking what appears in retrospect to be a bargain with Sadr: He would withdraw to his own fastness in the Bagdhad slums, be free to criticize the occupation from the sidelines, and participate in the political process. For our own part, we would not seek any more to kill him.
The bill on that bargain has now come due:**
BAGHDAD — A major battle between the Iraqi army and Shiite Muslim militiamen in the southern city of Diwaniya left more than 40 dead, including 25 soldiers, and more than 90 injured, U.S. and Iraqi military sources said.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene in which combatants fought through the streets using machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. At one point during the battle, which began Sunday night and raged into Monday, militiamen executed a dozen Iraqi soldiers who had run out of ammunition, Maj. Gen. Othman Ghanimi said.The Iraqi army’s inability to deal a swift and decisive blow to the militia uprising in Diwaniya raised questions about the readiness of tens of thousands of recently trained troops who are taking on increased security responsibilities nationwide.
The plot gets complicated now, since Sadr helped build the political coalition that raised Nouri al Maliki to premiership, and controls 30 seats in the Iraqi national assembly. But his militiamen are broadly implicated both in a low running resistance campaign targeted at US and British troops, while also providing materiel and personnel support to the death squads busily murdering random Sunnis in the dark of night, and threatening to plunge the country into a hellish civil war.
It may be that letting Sadr off the hook was a necessary tactical concession two years ago, or perhaps we merely lost our nerve. Either way, it’s hard to see how Iraq will ever be at peace within itself again until the state controls all the levers of collective violence, with all of these partisan militias either disarmed or folded into the national police and army and their more violent members purged.
This is the real test for al Maliki’s government. He must be made to understood how much is riding on the outcome.
* 09-12-2018 Link Gone; no replacements found – Ed.
** 09-12-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.