Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Resurging Surge in Violence in Iraq?

Consider the following events that have happened, are happening, and may happen – and ask yourself if they spell added danger?

January 10, 2007: President Bush, appearing on national television, confirmed “leaks” of a “surge” in the number of BCTs and logistics units in or supporting the U.S.-led coalition.

February 2007: the first “surge” BCT completes deployment into the Baghdad area.

April 2007: Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who also controls the largest and arguably the deadliest sectarian militia in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, announces a unilateral cease fire and instructs his followers not to resist U.S. raids.

Summer 2007: Fatalities begin to fall and continue downward into the third month of 2008.

December 2007: A non-surge BCT and a Marine Corps combat battalion leave Iraq and are replaced not by U.S. units but by Iraqis.

January 2008: The first of the five “surge” BCTs redeploys from Iraq, with the remaining four scheduled to redeploy by the end of June 2008. At that point, total U.S. forces in or supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom will be about 140,000.

February 2008: The U.S. enters discussions with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on a “non-treaty” agreement governing the conduct of U.S. forces in Iraq (a “Status of Forces Agreement”) effective January 1, 2009 when the UN mandate authorizing the presence of foreign troops in Iraq expires.

March 2008: In quick succession come the fifth anniversary of the coalition’s invasion of Iraq, the 4,000th U.S. fatality in Iraq, and a major two-prong effort by Iraqi security forces, directed by al-Maliki, to regain control of Basra and its oil exporting facilities and to reduce even further the violence and fatalities in Baghdad and Basra.

April 2008: Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus testify before Congress and are expected to recommend a six-week “pause” to assess the security conditions before taking additional reductions.

Autumn 2008: Iraqi elections for province-level officials are set for October. To win, al-Maliki must be able to point to a society secure from militia dominance and violence – which might explain his unusual appearance in embattled Basra. Beyond physical security, al-Maliki has to start providing essential government services to the majority of the population on an extended and reliable basis. And he must convey the impression that the entire society is benefitting equitably from Iraq’s oil wealth.

And then comes November and the U.S. general election. While the identity of the Democratic Party candidate is still undecided, there is little that will change about foreign policy in general and the conduct of the Iraq war in particular.

So the question of the day: Do the strikes by Iraqi security forces, concentrated as they are against al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia in Basra even though it is far from controlling the city given the plethora of militias, criminal syndicates, and thieves, and Baghdad’s Sadr City constitute a preemptive power play against a most potent rival in the October elections?

Al-Maliki may have grown uneasy over the “positive tone” of recent remarks by some U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington about al-Sadr’s efforts to burnish his political credentials. Although under pressure from restive elements in the Mahdi militia to abandon the unilateral ceasefire, Sadr renewed it, probably anticipating he could outwait the U.S. drawdown of forces at least through 2008.

Mahdi militiamen are defending themselves. Should Sadr fail to get the Iraqi security forces to stop the offensive against his followers, they may simply ignore his calls for restraint and plunge the two cities into chaos – triggering direct U.S. intervention and rekindling the sectarian fighting and targeting of coalition forces.

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