Do or Die Against Iraq's Death Squads

By David Ignatius
Friday, July 28, 2006

Nouri al-Maliki does not strike a commanding pose as Iraq's new prime minister: Slouching, stubble-faced, uneasy before foreign audiences, he looks more like a doughy Mukhabarat officer than the sleek exile politicians who have been making the rounds in Washington over the past decade.

His visit seemed almost a sideshow this week in the apocalyptic mood caused by the Lebanon war. Certainly Democrats in Congress treated it that way, bizarrely hectoring Maliki for not embracing Israel's war in Lebanon. But the visit was important in its own right because it offered a chance to assess the Bush administration's strategy as the Iraq war spins toward the point of no return.

Maliki's government is the last good chance for a democratic Iraq. Many Americans seem to take it almost for granted that the Iraq project has failed. But as bad as the situation is now, it could get worse. If Maliki cannot rally the country behind his so-called unity government, the civil war will shift into a grim new phase, with pitched sectarian battles for control of territory and the prospect of tens of thousands more dead.

To avert this cataclysm, Maliki has endorsed an aggressive strategy to retake Baghdad from the Shiite death squads roaming the streets. That means taking on militia gangs tied to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The strategy is premised on a view that unless Maliki's Shiite-dominated government can stop the death squads from his own sect, he will have no chance of co-opting Sunni insurgent groups.

The military calls the new battle for Baghdad "Operation Together Forward." It began about two weeks ago, with raids by U.S. and British special operations forces to capture or kill death squad leaders. So far, about 10 have been "taken out," most of them members of the Mahdi Army, according to administration officials. The operations included a strike by British forces against a Mahdi Army lieutenant who had been terrorizing residents of Basra in southern Iraq.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, who accompanied Maliki here, explained the new strategy in an interview yesterday. "We need to make it risky for people to operate these death squads," he said. Although U.S. military planners were worried that Sadr might respond by bringing his fighters out in the streets en masse, Khalilzad said that, so far, "Moqtada's reaction has been muted. He understands that the death squads are out of control. They include former Saddamists who joined the Mahdi Army and are not under his control." Administration officials say that they don't want a pitched battle with Sadr, but that, in the words of one official: "If confrontation comes, it's best that it come now."

This stealthy war against the death squads is at the center of the new strategy for securing Baghdad. U.S. officials concede that the initial plan for retaking control of the capital, announced when Maliki took office in May, was a flop. That earlier strategy focused on checkpoints manned by the Iraqi army and police that, in theory, would cordon off the city. But Baghdad is a sprawling metropolis of 6.5 million people and more than 100 entry points, and the checkpoints had little practical effect.

The new idea is to add more force -- beefing up the 52,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops in the city by about 20 percent. In addition to targeting death squad leaders, the United States plans to retake Baghdad neighborhoods by starting with the city's 117 police stations. The plan is to install stronger Iraqi police leadership and embed U.S. forces with them. Administration officials speak of an "ink spot" strategy for Baghdad, establishing these pockets of security and then expanding them outward.

As coalition forces go after the Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents, Khalilzad wants to push ahead with the larger reconciliation strategy. "We need to treat reconciliation the same way we treated the constitution and the formation of the government," he says, with meetings every day and "frank talk" about how to stop the ruination of Iraq. Meanwhile, to fund reconstruction without further depleting U.S. coffers, the Iraqis will ask European and Asian nations to contribute $100 billion or more over the next five years.

At this late stage of the Iraq story, skepticism is in order whenever officials talk of grand new strategies. The ideas discussed this week look good in PowerPoint presentations in the Green Zone, but they are much harder to implement out on the streets. What would change the equation would be if death squad leaders became afraid that they themselves would be captured or killed. That's the brutal logic of America's war in Iraq as it begins its decisive final chapters.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company