The recent fighting in Baghdad, Basra, and elsewhere between Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Maliki government forces with American support have ably demonstrated that the relative tranquility has not been based solely or even mainly on General Petraeus’s surge program. The decline in violence has been based on many factors. The Sunni tribes of Anbar and Diyala have garnered US protection from Shi’a militias in exchange for their help in fighting al Qaeda. Shi’a groups have ceased fighting the US and each other, due to fears of a US-Sunni partnership and also due to Iranian pressure.
All observers are wondering if the recent violence will spread and undermine the administration’s Iraq policy. (Supporters dread it; opponents privately yearn for it.) Several forces will likely prevent a return to the violence of a year ago ”“ at least for the time being.
First, Sadr is unlikely to find allies in or outside of Iraq. He is not well respected among most Shi’a because he caters to urban masses and lacks the Islamic credentials that his father and Sadr’s rivals enjoy. Sunnis abhor him as the would-be avatar of their expulsion or extermination. And Iran, despite being supportive of him in some respects, views him as anti-Persian and an obstacle to its goal of a stable, Shi’a dominated Iraq.
Second, purely military considerations suggest that the violence will be contained. Sadr’s troops, though armed and trained by Iranian cadre, lack the discipline to deliver a decisive defeat to Maliki’s forces, who for their part have demonstrated no ability to do the same to Sadr’s. A return to a truce is more likely than an internecine war.
Third, the US is unlikely to press Maliki to fight on for an extended period or to launch once more its own incursions into Sadr’s strongholds. Much as the US would like to see Sadr’s command terminated (Wolfowitz is said to have authorized his killing years ago), protracted battles would call into question the surge’s success and make Petraeus’s upcoming visit to Washington far more than the triumphant publicity event it is hoped to be.
Fourth, Iran does not want its co-religionists, upon whom it places its hopes of a stable neighbor to its west, degenerate into intra-sectarian warfare. All this makes for a containment of the present fighting.
Amid the chaos of this recent upsurge in fighting, several things are clear.
First, the Iraqi army, despite years of Petraeus’s tutelage, has been a disappointment to its mentor and headmaster. Government’s forces have experienced desertion and balking and have had to use US airpower against Sadr’s rickety militia units, which likely now lack any unitary command and may now be loyal to various local commanders and Iranian advisers. The Iraqi army would fare even worse against Sunni insurgents, many of whom are former members of Saddam’s army and others who have benefited from US assistance for over a year now.
Second, the US will not be able to safely withdraw any more brigades than have already been announced for the next few months. The generals oppose the further cuts that the administration wants for political purposes before the US elections, and they are likely to have their way ”“ and their brigades.
Third, coalition forces in the south will face increased casualties or at least the threat thereof, which will lead to more allies withdrawing their forces. Small though those contingents are, they will have to be replaced somehow ”“ almost certainly from already stretched US troops.
Fourth, political reconciliations, which composed an essential goal of the recent surge program, remain largely elusive.
The US’s efforts in reducing casualties is reminiscent of the old plate spinning acts on variety shows of the fifties and sixties. A staple of the era, the act consisted of an agile performer spinning several plates atop sticks while audiences looked on in awe and trepidation, and hurrying from one to the other to prevent them from crashing to the floor. This time the US will probably avoid losing a plate, but another in its Baghdad act will soon be wobbling.
~ Â©2008 Brian M. Downing
Brian M. Downing is a regular contributor to The Agonist and the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.