Five days ago the Iraqi government began a crackdown in Basra on the lawless militia followers of Moqtada al Sadr. The fighting quickly spread to Baghdad and other Shiite towns like Nasiriya, Ku, Hilla and Diwaniyah, all places that are familiar to me and that I visited many times. The reasons for this new outbreak of fighting is not very well understood by many Americans. I have even received an email asking, in essence, "I thought you said that the surge was working?"
The actions taken by the Iraqi government in the last few days are extremely important for the future of that government as well as for the Iraqi people. To be effective any government must have sole control on the use of force within the boundaries of the nation. Sadr's militia, the so-called Mahdi Army, have between 40 - 60,000 (estimates vary) followers operating from majority Shia areas throughout central and southern Iraq. Sadr has influence, but not necessarily control over these groups of what are essentially armed gangs. These gangs are heavily involved in criminal activity.
The Mahdi Army is nothing new. These gangs were just beginning to form when I was in Iraq in 2003 - 2004. I remember clearly one day when I was in An Najaf an Iraqi told me Sadr followers were stockpiling arms and ammunition in mosques in the city. In April 2004 Ambassador Bremer tried to crack down on Sadr but the result was an armed Shia uprising in south-central Iraq that the Coailtion Multi-National Division was unable to suppress. American forces moved in to do the job and restore order. In August 2004 Sadr tried to use force again in the city of Najaf. The Marines and the Iraqi Army were called in and the Mahdi Army suffered considerable casualties before a truce was brokered.
The military defeats of Sadr in 2004 caused him to change strategy. Sadr began to work the political arena, although he kept his Mahdi Army armed and ready. Sadr began to bide his time, waiting for the moment when the Americans would leave and he could renew his effort to turn Iraq into his own version of an Islamist, fascist state.
This week the Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki decided to take on Sadr and his Mahdi Army. This was not a sudden, impulsive decision but one taken after consultations with the Americans and his partners in the government. This dirty job needed to be done but the security situation and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces was never such as to be able to perform the task. I can only hope that the Iraqi Army is up to the task. Sadr is calling for a ceasefire so he must be worried that his military force will be chewed to pieces if they were to try to take on the Army.
This is a risky endeavor by Prime Minister Maliki. He can't fail. Should he fail in all likelihood he would lose his job. The consequences of failure are great, not only for the Iraqis but for the Americans and the Presidential election.
The New York Times is already saying the the Iraqi government operation has stalled. This is like calling the game as over after two minutes of the first quarter. I believe that the battle has just begun, and the outcome will not be known for weeks. We shall see.