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U.S. Leads Sadr Showdown in Baghdad

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Samuel Brannen
Fellow, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Friday, March 28, 2008; 2:00 PM

Samuel Brannen, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies's International Security Program, was online Friday, March 28 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the latest violence in Iraq, its causes, the role the U.S. is taking in the fighting and what may happen next.

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U.S. Appears to Take Lead in Fighting in Baghdad (Post, March 28)

The transcript follows.

Brannen works on projects related to defense strategy and policy, Middle East security (especially U.S.-Turkey and U.S.-Turkey-Iraq issues) and U.S. national security reform. During the summer of 2007, he served as a staff member for the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq. He traveled to Iraq in July 2007 and assisted commissioners in the drafting of the report, submitted to Congress in September 2007. Previously, Brannen was a policy planner in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

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Samuel Brannen: Good afternoon. I'm writing to you from downtown Washington, which is quite a way from Baghdad, Iraq, where a dust storm is rising along with the nightly mix of random gunfire, helicopters, mortars, and rockets. As major military operations by the Iraqi and Coalition forces unfold in Baghdad, Basra, and elsewhere in the country, the situation in Iraq looks to be unraveling further. It is certainly a world away from President Bush's upbeat speech delivered yesterday.

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Wilton, Conn.: Why is this crackdown on the Sadrists taking place now?

Samuel Brannen: According to U.S. forces, the operations currently ongoing in Basra, Iraq are not a "crackdown on the Sadrists." Prime Minister Maliki has said that, Prime Minister Maliki said that he chose to undertake operations in Baghdad because "the lawlessness is going on under religious or political cover, along with smuggling of oil, weapons, and drugs. These outlaws found support from inside government institutions, either willingly or by coercion, turning Basra into a place where citizens struggled to feel secure for their lives and property." Maliki has traveled along with his top security advisors and officials to Basra to oversee operations.

Of course, that is a thinly veiled excuse for what has amounted to a crackdown on the Sadrists in favor of the groups aligned with the two most powerful Shi'ite parties currently in power: The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI or SIIC) and Maliki's Dawa party. Specifically, this operation appears to back the Badr militia against Sadr's Mahdi Army. Really, it is the central government reasserting control over Iraq's most oil-rich region.

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New York: Who's winning the battle for Basra?

Samuel Brannen: From what we know, no one is winning the battle for Basra. It is ongoing and we have heard very few details out of Basra about the nature of the fighting. It is being conducted by Iraqi Army and police forces, supported by Coalition (U.S. and British) warplanes and advisors on the ground. And of course, if things start going badly for the Iraqi forces, the U.S. is prepared to step in.

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Los Angeles: We were told that when the violence was down, that was a sign of the surge working and progress; now the increased violence is sign that the surge is working, and of progress. How can the press allow this nonsense to go unchallenged?

Samuel Brannen: The real goal of the surge was to reduce violence to a level at which political reconciliation between Iraqi Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities could take place. That hasn't happened. The Shiite parties in power want to stay in power and they're shutting everyone else out. Even when the Governing Council of Iraq passes a law, such as recent reforms to Coalition Provisional Authority-era de-Baathification, the law isn't enforced. As a result, the U.S. is reaching political reconciliation parallel to the Government of Iraq. The U.S. reconciled this summer with many Sunnis and they reconciled with many of al-Sadr's forces. But these are still the enemies of the politicians running Iraq's government. That has made the U.S. even more entangled in Iraq's politics, and it makes it even more difficult to determine an exit strategy. But it did work to reduce violence in the short term, which has fallen about 65 percent since this summer. It is rising again, though, related to growing tensions between Maliki's government and Sadr's movement.

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Santa Fe, N.M.: What do the current conditions in Iraq mean for the Democratic candidates, who are talking about bring the troops home sooner rather than later?

Samuel Brannen: I'm not prepared to talk partisan politics, but I do think that my eminent colleague Zbigniew Brzezinski makes a compelling case in this Washington Post Outlook piece:

He writes: "The impasse in Shiite-Sunni relations is in large part the sour byproduct of the destructive U.S. occupation, which breeds Iraqi dependency even as it shatters Iraqi society. In this context, so highly reminiscent of the British colonial era, the longer we stay in Iraq, the less incentive various contending groups will have to compromise and the more reason simply to sit back. A serious dialogue with the Iraqi leaders about the forthcoming U.S. disengagement would shake them out of their stupor."

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Richmond, Va.: It seems there is some disagreement about whether Maliki should have gone to take charge personally in Basra. I heard one pro (he wants to show his commitment) and one con (he is getting in the way, mircomanaging the operation). What are some other pros and cons?

Samuel Brannen: No doubt, this is unusual. President Bush certainly hasn't spent a lot of time commanding from the field in Iraq; but if the civil war were raging in the United States, one could see what a powerful morale booster it could be to have the commander in chief with the troops. Iraqis like this brand of strongman, up-close and personal politics. It shows Maliki isn't a U.S. puppet sitting in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Then again, it could also be read in very sectarian terms and as a slap in the face of Sadr, who is hiding somewhere in Iran. The real concern here is that Iraq, an already fragmented society, is now cleaving further with growing Shi'ite on Shiite violence.

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Arlington, Va.: It is no secret that Prime Minister Maliki has been less than helpful in securing a political victory in Iraq while corruption and general ambivalence still loom large among his government's officials. With this in mind, what are the chances the U.S. successfully will prosecute the "softer" side of the conflict, the irregular warfare aspects of winning over the population? Barring full support from Maliki, what will make this effort easier?

Samuel Brannen: Great question. The best answer I can give is to say that in many ways Basra is a look into the future. The British turned the province over to the Iraqis in December and they have since converted to what we could call an "overwatch mission," in which they continue to train and advise forces, and can provide things like logistics support and air support and other combat enablers. The battle being fought there does appear to be largely Iraqi planned and led, with the U.S. also providing this "overwatch" function, as one day it may do with far fewer troops throughout Iraq. If the Iraqis can take and hold Basra, that says good things about what they can do elsewhere in the country without U.S. forces helping them. But as you mention, the central government is extremely corrupt and inefficient. While the U.S. has made tremendous strides in the past year building up Iraqi military capabilities among the security forces, the rest of the government is in shambles. For instance, they can pass budgets, but then they can't figure out how to spend the money. There needs to be a "surge" now to build a functional Iraqi government and to continue to push for political accommodation to share power in the country and to preserve the ballot box over the bullet.

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Montreal: How representative is the Maliki government? What proportion of the population would say feels represented well (how big is its "base"), somewhat well-represented or not represented at all?

Samuel Brannen: This government really is not very representative at all. It may represent a narrow majority of Shiites but it certainly doesn't represent the majority of Iraqis. There was a lot of confusion trickery at the last election involving a list of candidates supposedly endorsed by Ayatollah Sistani, who is by far the most popular figure in Iraq but has largely chosen to stay out of politics. Sunnis boycotted the election for the most part. Kurds participated, and they were rewarded with some high cabinet posts and the largely ceremonial post of the Iraqi presidency; but they have little real control over Iraq's security forces and other important issues. New elections need to be held soon at the provincial level, and these keep getting postponed. The fear is that in new elections, many of the Sadrists currently out of power might sweep to power (some were in power in this government but since left due to disagreements with ISCI and Dawa and others). The Sadrists are hard-line against the U.S. occupation, and it would certainly complicate matters.

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New York: Have you read Patrick Cockburn's new book, "Muqtada," yet?

Samuel Brannen: I have not but he is brilliant. I'm sure it's well worth reading.

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Austin, Texas: I guess this is a flip question, but it doesn't seem like it should be. When will we win this war so we can stop spending billions of dollars over there and having our troops killed and maimed by the thousands? How can this ever end if violence is a sign of winning and lack of violence is a sign of winning and more troops or fewer troops is a sign of winning? I'd like to really understand just exactly who knows why the next American is losing an arm or a leg or a father or mother. Just exactly what is the point of this war?

Samuel Brannen: I hope the next president can answer that, because this president doesn't seem to interested in engaging in that dialog. And we're not just spending billions; we're spending trillions. See this washingtonpost.com conversation with Joseph E. Stiglitz about the book he wrote with Linda J. Bilmes, "The $3 Trillion War."

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Washington: What do you make of Admiral Fallon's resignation and the fact that the Pentagon is about to declassify materials describing Iran's involvement in stoking unrest in Iraq? Are we building a case for war with Iran?

Samuel Brannen: I have never been of the opinion that we would be foolish enough to strike Iran with the force protection issues that would cause for us in Iraq and other areas around the world. But I think the likelihood of a strike against Iran is growing. Multi-National Force-Iraq has built a compelling case about the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and its role in supplying "indirect fire" teams in Iraq. They are supplying the rockets, mortars, explosively forced penetrators (EFPs) that defeat U.S. armor, and training. They're killing Iraqis and Americans and destabilizing the border. A military solution certainly isn't the best option. We cannot talk about how important and dangerous Iran is on the one hand and be willing to use only one tool to engage them on the other. Diplomats are to talk to enemies. You don't need them to talk to friends.

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Midlothian, Va.: "The real concern here is that Iraq, an already fragmented society, is now cleaving further with growing Shiite on Shiite violence." This, however, is hugely important -- the fact that we're not talking about sectarian battles, but instead a governmental initiative to intercede in criminal/insurgent activities, regardless of Islamic sect. That's a big deal. We're talking about enforcement of authority, not violence for violence's sake.

Samuel Brannen: You are correct. This could be a very positive sign: that Maliki is in theory taking on bad guys even if they belong to the same sect of Islam as he does. But there is a lot of other evidence we must weigh that suggests he's doing this for political gain: to make sure he weakens an organization that could threaten him and that was gaining too much popular support. Then again, that's how states are made. There have to be winners and as one official said, you cannot have two armies: the Iraqi Army and the Mahdi Army. There can only be one. The question is whether he has picked a fight he cannot win, in which case a political compromise with Sadr may have been much smarter. As violence picks up again in Baghdad, I'm getting worried. This thing is spreading beyond Basra.

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Portland, Ore.: Which of the Shia "parties" has the closest ties to Iran? If they are Maliki's and al-Hakim's, aren't we backing the friends of our stated enemy?

Samuel Brannen: Answer: they all do. These parties have links to Tehran related to the support they were given when they were underground or in exile during the Baathist rule. But at the end of the day, most of them deeply mistrust Iran and they sure as heck don't want Iranians running their country or taking their oil revenue. There is a common saying in the Arab world: me against my brother; my brother and I against my cousin; my brother, cousin and I against everyone. Iraq is a landscape of shifting alliances and allegiances much more like fifteenth century Europe than anything else.

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Montreal: Is there a good outcome likely? For instance, could Sadr be defeated and Sunni unity increase?

Samuel Brannen: It would be impossible to defeat Sadr. His organization is huge and it is all over Iraq. His people in Basra may lose, but increasingly his political organization is taking on a life of its own. As a matter of fact, it is still technically observing a cease-fire with U.S. and Iraqi forces, despite what you see. There are questions of how much command and control he has over his military wing, the Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM).

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Washington: I take it you don't buy the statements last fall from Hakim's son urging political reconciliation with the Sunnis? Moreover, while various reports indicate that the Iranians have been arming both the Mahdi Army and the Fahdila militias, most of the Badr Corps has been folded into the regular army, hasn't it? I see this more as a move to marginalize Sadr -- and through him the meddling of the Iranians -- before the upcoming provincial elections. Your thoughts?

Samuel Brannen: Again, I don't think you can pin Sadr as an Iranian puppet. He has his own agenda, and increasingly it has been much more Iraqi nationalist and conciliatory with Kurds and Sunnis. He wants to be a national-level leader. He wants his movement to become what Hezbollah is in Lebanon (and he and his military have had contact with that group). It's not clear what has happened with the Badr Corps, but it's fair to say they're alive and well at least in the country's southeast. Some of them have certainly joined the Iraqi Army, as have many JAM soldiers. There are big questions looming about the sectarian composition of the Iraqi Security Forces generally and what this means for when they have to do the kinds of fighting they're doing in Basra. We have a report from today that some of the Special Weapons and Tactics police units are defecting to fight alongside Sadrists.

For more on the Iraqi Security Forces, I will shamelessly plug the commission report I worked on this summer, led by Gen. James Jones (Marines, ret.). It's well worth reading to understand the security situation in Iraq and the capacity of the Iraqi government to deal with it.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Regardless whether they're in Sadr's camp or not, I would like to know, approximately what percentage of the Shiite population is supporting the uprising and demonstrations? I believe U.S. is digging itself deeper in this hellish hole; irrespective of the outcome, we will be blamed for generations. Thanks.

Samuel Brannen: I have no idea, but large-scale strikes in Baghdad indicate it's quite a few. It's enough that in a democracy you have to be concerned. In an emerging democracy like Iraq, you have to be alarmed.

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Montreal: How credible are the official spokesmen being about what's going on? Is this a crackdown on Sadr or not? If so, who's lying about it?

Samuel Brannen: The spokesmen aren't lying; they're just editing their comments very carefully. In their comments they are careful to continue to refer to preface Moqtada al-Sadr's name with "al-sayyidi" -- the honorable. Remember, the U.S. has its own political relations with Sadr that are highly complex and quite different from those of the government of Iraq. Maliki does things as he sees fit, and so does the U.S. That's the problem: We have becoming a political center of gravity around which Iraq's political landscape has warped itself.

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Takoma Park, Md.: The magic word of the day is "civil war," don't you think?

Samuel Brannen: That's two words, and there's nothing magic about them. I hope not. The last time fighting picked up against Sadr's forces to this degree was probably 2004.

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Re: Basra deadlines: Doesn't Maliki look foolish when he keeps pushing back the deadline for the factions to "lay down their arms"? Also, I don't see any arms being laid down. Do you?

Samuel Brannen: I think Maliki's mouth got ahead of his understanding of the military situation. I bet he wishes he didn't say that, because it's not going to happen. If you think Americans have a love affair with guns, you should meet Iraqis.

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Boston: How can we credibly argue we are not picking sides in the intra-Shiite civil war right now ahead of the Sunni battle against whichever Shiite group ends up on top? Did we stop making "reconstruction" payments to Sadr (from the Frontline "Bush's War" piece, about $300 million a few years ago)? What worked in the early days of the Afghan War (bags of cash to tribal leaders) is not a viable long-term foreign policy in Iraq, Pakistan or most anywhere else. How much money have the U.S. taxpayers coughed up to buy temporary foreign allies in this manner?

Samuel Brannen: You should write your member of Congress with that question. It's in the tens of billions. And it's worth noting that we have bought and paid for the breakthrough we've reached with the Sunnis in Iraq to form the Sahwa groups (also known as Sons of Iraq, "Awakening" or Concerned Local Citizen (CLC) militias). They're happy as long as we're willing to arm, train, equip, and pay them. The government of Iraq is unwilling to fold them into the other Iraqi security forces, and they are unwilling to pay them.

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St. Simons Island, Ga.: Regarding the question of Iran and the two political parties fighting in Basra, I believe it was Fred Kaplan who said the Badr group is closer to Iran, the leaders having been exiled to Iran during Saddam's regime, whereas the Sadr group stayed in Iraq.

Samuel Brannen: Again, the Sadrists were mostly based in Iraq, but today, at this very moment, we think Moqtada al-Sadr is in Iran. He is studying to become an ayatollah. Right now he's just a low-man in the Shiite clerical hierarchy.

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San Clemente, Calif.: What is the likelihood that in the end the U.S. will just find another Saddam, a dog who'll eat a dog, and turn the whole mess over to him with the understanding that Iraq and it's people are his to do with as he wishes so long as he doesn't screw with our oil and doesn't support terrorists against us or our allies?

Samuel Brannen: If we want to leave soon, this likelihood is very high. It is tossed around by those familiar with the Iraqi political process. Tom Friedman once asked in a column whether Saddam was the way he was because Iraq is the way it is, or if Iraq is the way it is because Saddam was the way he was. It's a little of both and it's not clear how Iraqis will move past their history without repeating it.

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Surge success or Sadr cease-fire?: What am I missing? About the time the "surge" started, Sadr said he'd lay low for a while (unilateral cease-fire), so our "surge" looks successful because of reduced violence. But doesn't that mean that the reduced violence is because of Sadr laying low, not anything we did in the "surge." Now he decides to come out and start shooting again. Did our surge accomplish anything, or is (was) the reduced violence a strategic maneuver by Sadr, to be turned off and on when he wants? Thanks.

Samuel Brannen: A little from column A and a little from column B. Sadr's cease-fire has done a lot to quell violence in Iraq. But so has the change in U.S. strategy to take a much more aggressive role in training and mentoring Iraqi security forces, and in living in the Iraqi communities they protect, rather than patrolling only in armored convoys and living on bases. This is the real counterinsurgency genius of Gen. David Petraeus and others you hear about and it really has worked. I was in Iraq this summer and got to see it firsthand. U.S. soldiers are showing courage beyond anything we can understand, and they're walking the streets, talking with Iraqis. Instead of encountering Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs -- the leave behind weapon of choice that insurgents use to devastating effect), they are talking to people in the neighborhood and finding out who is making the devices. They're making neighborhoods livable and taking the enemy off the people. No one wants a war in their front yard, but you have to do something to protect them from the insurgents. It's exhausting work and many U.S. troops are there on their fourth or even fifth tour (of up to 15 months at a time). Imagine that. The political progress that rewards their hard work is missing. We need that political surge now and it hasn't come.

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Samuel Brannen: Thanks, everyone.

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