The United States military and the Iraqi government are starting to get a foretaste of what the cost of victory will entail as coalition forces and Iraqi troops begin moving against the two headed monster of Iranian backed militias:
At least 100 people were killed across Iraq yesterday in a day of intense gun battles and suicide bombings, contradicting US military claims that the security situation in the war-torn nation was improving.
A total of 34 bodies, including seven civilians and 25 Iraqi government soldiers, were brought into the central hospital in the town of Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, after fighting between government forces and gunmen of the Mehdi Army, a Shia militia loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Fifty militiamen were also killed in the gunfight, according to the Iraqi defence ministry.
In a separate development, a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into the Interior Ministry in Baghdad during the midmorning rush hour, killing 16 people, including 13 policemen, and wounding up to 62.
On Sunday, a further 60 people were killed in attacks across the country from Kirkuk in the Kurdish-held north to Basra in the south.
I understand the need to put the best face on what is going on in Iraq. I understand that the American and Iraqi people are beginning to lose hope that anything like a stable Iraq can emerge from our three year effort there and that keeping a stiff upper lip to bolster their resolve is tempting. I even understand the natural human impulse to engage in wishful thinking in the face of such horrific bloodletting.
What I cannot understand or excuse is statements like this:
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the lead spokesman for the American military, said Monday that attacks and murders in Baghdad declined in August thanks to the deployment of about 12,000 additional American and Iraqi troops. He said several neighborhoods searched over the past few weeks under a new security plan were reviving, with stores re-opening, and children riding bicycles in the streets.
Yet Mr. Sadr and the Mahdi Army remain an obstacle. Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite who depends on support from Mr. Sadrâ€™s allies in Parliament, has not confronted Mr. Sadr publicly. Sadr City, a Mahdi bastion, has not been searched or raided in a thorough manner, even though it is one of the capitalâ€™s most violent areas.
The Americans have maintained some distance: even as the fighting raged in Diwaniya on Monday, General Caldwell told reporters he had not been briefed on the battle and could not comment.
“Children riding bicycles in the streets…?” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Just a few miles from where those children were riding bikes, an entirely different scene was unfolding:
At least two dozen bodies, many bearing signs of torture, were found dumped in Shiite areas of Baghdad on Tuesday, and the government almost doubled the death toll from clashes this week between militiamen and Iraqi forces, saying 73 people had died.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met with Iraq’s deputy prime minister in Baghdad in a visit he said was to promote “the rule of law.”
I am happy the situation has improved over the last three weeks or so. But three weeks is hardly a trend. Nor is there any evidence whatsoever that all the patrolling and rousting, and sweeps, can stop the Mehdi Army from killing whomever they wish whenever they want.
And the way al-Maliki is talking, it doesn’t sound like he’s ready to face the consequences of cracking down on the death squads. Al-Sadr will fight back – as he has already started to in Diwaniyah. That battle was sparked by the Iraqi Army arresting a suspected roadside bomber:
General Ghanimi and other Iraqi Army and police officials said several militias were involved, not just the Mahdi Army. But they said the seed of the violence on Monday was planted a week ago when a roadside bomb they believe was planted by the Mahdi Army killed at least two Iraqi soldiers. Two days later, the Iraqi Army arrested a member of the Mahdi Army.
Nasir al-Saadi, a spokesman for the Sadr bloc in Parliament, said the unidentified Sadr militant arrested by the army was tortured and may have been killed. According to Mr. Saadiâ€™s account, the army started attacking a Mahdi-dominated neighborhood late Sunday night. He said the soldiers killed civilians and damaged houses while Sadr militants â€œdid not participateâ€ at first, refusing to return fire.
General Ghanimi, a Sunni, denied torturing the Mahdi detainee, noting that Sadr representatives visited him on Saturday and found him healthy. He said they asked for the accused bomberâ€™s release and when the army refused, fighting broke out as the militias sought to free him from custody.
Sounds almost like al-Saadi’s statement was taken from the Hizbullah Media Playbook. Accuse an enemy of an atrocity in order to shift blame for initiating violence from your side. Nasrallah would be proud of the lessons his student al-Sadr has been absorbing of late.
In the meantime, al-Maliki remains indecisive:
But Mr. Maliki has yet to introduce any new policy, and has refrained from strong condemnations of Mr. Sadrâ€™s militia, the Mahdi Army. Mr. Maliki relies on Mr. Sadr, who is enormously popular among poor Shiites, for political support against rival Shiite politicians. Mr. Sadr controls several ministries and at least 30 seats in Parliament, and he maintains close ties to Mr. Malikiâ€™s political group, the Islamic Dawa Party.
Earlier this month, after the Americans called in air support during a raid with Iraqi forces in a Sadr stronghold in Baghdad, Mr. Maliki denounced the move by the Americans and said he had never given permission for it.
We can appreciate Mr. Maliki’s delicate position but frankly, the time for delicacy has long passed. Al-Sadr’s militia is the primary force behind the murder of thousands of innocent Sunnis. They have admitted as much. Their militia operates outside of the Constitutional justice system and knows no law but the Koran:
In a grungy restaurant with plastic tables in central Baghdad, the young Mahdi Army commander was staring earnestly. His beard was closely cropped around his jaw, his face otherwise cleanshaven. The sleeves of his yellow shirt were rolled down to the wrists despite the intense late-afternoon heat. He spoke matter-of-factly: Sunni Arab fighters suspected of attacking Shiite Muslims had no claim to mercy, no need of a trial.
“These cases do not need to go back to the religious courts,” said the commander, who sat elbow to elbow with a fellow fighter in a short-sleeved, striped shirt. Neither displayed weapons. “Our constitution, the Koran, dictates killing for those who kill.”
His comments offered a rare acknowledgment of the role of the Mahdi Army in the sectarian bloodletting that has killed more than 10,400 Iraqis in recent months.
Maliki has got to decide if he wants to do what is necessary or what is politically possible. Of course this means he’s between a rock and a hard place on the militia issue. But it also means he may have to risk the Mehdi bloc withdrawing from Parliament if he wants to drastically curtail sectarian violence as well as the war between the Badr Brigades and the Mehdi Army which threatens to destroy his government.
The Brigades are the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Their leader, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, will probably back Maliki in disarming al-Sadr’s thugs. But what his reaction will be when we start going after his own bully boys is open to question:
In an interview with The Associated Press, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the country’s largest Shiite party, called on the government to expand its efforts to reconcile Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups, but not so far as to include Islamic extremists or Saddam Hussein loyalists.
“It is obvious that Takfiris [Sunni extremists] and Saddamists can never conduct any dialogue and they are not ready for that. They are the real enemies of the Iraqi people,” the soft-spoken Hakim said in an interview in his downtown Baghdad home.
“It is our duty and the duty of the government to continue contacts and make efforts to attract as many people as possible. Generally, we are very optimistic about the future,” Hakim added.
Is there a political solution to the militias? We thought so at one time. We encouraged the enlistment of the militias in the Iraqi police. This proved to be a disaster because the militia used their position as law enforcement officers to carry out murders of both insurgents as well as the political enemies of al-Sadr. And the Interior Ministry recruited members of the Badr Brigades into special police squadrons whose sole purpose was to kill their political enemies as well as carry out the worst atrocities against Sunni civilians.
If Maliki believes that a political solution to the problem is still viable, he may turn out to be worse than useless. We’ve already delayed this step for far too long. Any further delay would just make things bloodier and more difficult for our troops. Eventually, Maliki is going to realize that he’s not Prime Minister of anything as long as Muqtada al-Sadr draws breath. Killing him and most of his fighters is going to be the price for a more stable Iraq.