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He Came, He Cut Deals, He (May) Conquer
Another major change over the past 18 months is also poorly understood: the decision of the Mahdi Army, the radical Shiite militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr, to largely stop fighting. Sadr, a young firebrand Islamist cleric, raised a militia of poor youths to take on U.S. troops, even as he backed his fellow Shiite, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, through political channels. Then last August, Sadr abruptly declared a ceasefire.
That move has been widely misinterpreted as a spontaneous, unilateral gesture; in fact, it came after months of military and political pressure. Iraqi special operations forces, backed by elite U.S. combat advisers, conducted near-nightly raids against the most extreme elements of the Mahdi Army. In March 2007, according to Petraeus's staff, the special ops units captured Qais Khazali, a member of the radical Lebanese militia Hezbollah and a Sadrist militia leader. Khazali, U.S. military officials said, provided details of extensive Iranian assistance to Khazali's henchmen. This information, together with two assassinations of provincial governors by Sadrist forces, rattled Maliki -- and began to turn him against Sadr, a fellow Shiite who had helped put the prime minister in office.
The final straw came on Aug. 27, when Sadr's militiamen attacked guards at the main Shiite shrine in Karbala as a million worshipers arrived in the city to mark a holy day. An apoplectic Maliki rushed to Karbala, and the resulting confrontation led Sadr (then in Iran) to back down and issue his ceasefire declaration. Maliki then launched an offensive in Basra this spring to break Sadrists' control of the city, the port and oil pumping station. The wedge between Maliki and Sadr widened when massive arms caches of recent Iranian manufacture were discovered, despite Iran's 2007 pledge to desist stoking Iraq's nascent civil war.
That said, the intra-Shiite competition for power will persist for years; the trick is to channel it into politics, not violence -- and to continue to make use of the competition between Maliki and Sadr.
Iranian influence in Iraq is also destined to continue, but it's a double-edged sword. Iraqi Shiite groups are wary of appearing to be Iranian puppets, which would hamstring their popularity with Iraqis. Nor do many Iraqi Shiites fancy a Tehran-style theocracy. As Sadr's militia has loosened its control over many Shiite neighborhoods, ordinary Shiites have sighed with relief, glad to be rid of the thuggish behavior and the religious strictures imposed by some militia leaders.
Another key factor in Iraq's turnaround has been Petraeus's willingness to use his leverage with Iraqi leaders. Behind closed doors, the U.S. commander has frequently gone to the mat with Maliki as part of a "good cop, bad cop" routine that he and the unflappable Crocker have perfected. The veteran ambassador provided diplomatic sangfroid and insight into the region's historical animosities; Petraeus provided the raw muscle to maneuver the Iraqi government into making concessions.
Petraeus waded deeper into the political mire than most other U.S. generals would have. In one of my interviews with him last year, he confessed to me that he had shown the "full range of emotions" and had even feigned anger in order to move Maliki away from sectarianism. On his first tour in Iraq, in Mosul, the general had learned that it was sometimes necessary to bang tables and twist arms.
Getting basic services to Sunni areas was one key effort that required constant browbeating. When Petraeus was told that an Iraqi ministry official had refused to visit Dora, one of many Sunni regions still without electricity, trash removal and other basic services, I heard him bark, "Tell him if he wants a blue badge for the Green Zone, he'd better get down here." Petraeus also pushed the Iraqi parliament to pass de-Baathification reforms and other crucial legislation earlier this year. And not least, the general repeatedly bucked pressure from his civilian and military superiors at the Pentagon to declare "Mission Accomplished" before he felt that it was.
Petraeus's willingness to grapple with Iraqi politics made all the difference. His replacements' tasks will be more than ever political, not military. The former Sunni insurgency hasn't yet been woven into the political, economic and security life of the country, and the extraordinary success of the past 18 months is likely to unravel if Petraeus's and Crocker's successors -- as well as the next U.S. president -- do not finish that crucial undertaking.
No, the Iraqis can't finish the job on their own now; at the same time, no, we don't need 100,000 U.S. troops to stay in Iraq and do it for them. It would be heartening if we could understand the real record of Iraq's turnaround -- and talk about its future like grown-ups.
Linda Robinson is the author, most recently, of "Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq."