April 23, 2008

Chaos in Sadr City

Dr. iRack has been catching up on his "tabs." You see, when I notice an Iraq story I'm supposed to read, I open a new tab in Firefox. Currently I have over 70 tabs open on my computer. Boy, wars sure do generate a lot of news. Anway, I just got through a backlog of Sadr City articles, and I thought I'd provide a brief overview.

First, some deep background: In the spring and summer of 2004, the U.S. fought a series of high-intensity battles against Moqtada al-Sadr's Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) in Sadr City, Najaf, Karbala, and elsewhere. Sadr lost hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of men, but he wasn't defeated. A deal was struck whereby Sadr agreed to demobilize his militia and enter politics. Of course, he ignored the first part.

Fast forward to August 2007. The surge is in full bloom and Sadr declares a "freeze" on JAM's armed activities. His goals were many: avoid another 2004-style clash with the Americans; rehabilitate JAM's increasingly criminal reputation; and allow coalition forces to purge his ranks of the worst Iranian-backed factions, thereby enhancing his command-and-control. The effects of the freeze were profound. Go back and look at all those MNF-I slides from the September and April Petraeus testimonies. The steepest decline in violence occurred once the JAM ceasefire took hold.

Recent events in Iraq have now put this in jeopardy. In the wake of Maliki's ongoing offensive in Basra, the JAM ceasefire has teetered on the brink of total collapse. True, there has been some apparent political benefits. Da'wa, ISCI, the Kurds, and the Suni IIP have all rallied around the Prime Minister against JAM. As Ambassador Crocker recently noted: "The prime minister, the Iraqi government and the broad political leadership, since the Basra and Baghdad events that began last month, have been unified in their view that the time has come for an end to militia presence." Condi Rice went so far as to claim that "we've seen the coalescing of a center" in Iraqi politics. "The Sunni leadership, the Kurdish leadership and elements of the Shia are working together better than at any time."

But the danger in cornering Sadr/JAM is profound. If this is not handled in the right way, the ceasefire may completely shatter. And, if this happens, Iraq is screwed.

This is why we have to watch events in Sadr City very carefully. The fighting has been brutal over the past month, with hundreds of civilians caught in the crossfire. Efforts to restore basic service in the sprawling Shia slum have also lagged, underming efforts to win over local residents. According to the NYT:

For weeks, there have been reports that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is preparing to move ahead with a multimillion-dollar program to rebuild the southern swath of Sadr City, which is currently occupied by Iraqi and American troops.

But almost a month after American and Iraqi forces pushed into the area, there are no signs of reconstruction. Instead, the streets are filled with mounds of trash and bubbling pools of sewage. Many neighborhoods are still without electricity, and many residents are too afraid to brave the cross-fire to seek medical care. Iraqi public works officials, apparently fearful of the fighting, rarely seem to show up at work, and the Iraqi government insists the area is not safe enough for repairs to begin.

On Saturday, three Sadr City residents gingerly approached an American Army position to deliver a warning: Unless the Iraqi government or its American partner did something to restore essential services and remove the piles of garbage, the militias would gain more support.

Moreover, unlike in Basra, where the Iranians appear to have bailed on JAM, Tehran seemingly continues to support JAM attacks against American forces in Baghdad. Most importantly, the convenient fiction that we have only been fighting a narrow subset of Iranian backed "special groups" is increasingly unsustainable in Sadr City. Rank-and-file JAM appear to be fighting American and Iraqi forces, regularly lobbing mortars and rockets into the Green Zone. U.S. forces have erected a wall intended to create a "secure enclave" in the southern portion of Sadr City, closest to the Green Zone, where most of the rockets are launched, but thus far it has not succeeded in completely stopping the shelling. JAM was even rude enough to repeatedly rocket the Green Zone during Condi Rice's recent visit. According to the Post:

The fighting continued during Rice's visit. A ceremony at which she unveiled a plaque commemorating civilian deaths in the Green Zone was briefly delayed by a "duck and cover" alert, one of several during her six-hour visit to the fortified compound housing the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government.

The first of three rocket attacks occurred while she was meeting with Maliki at his office. In the second attack, as she returned to the Green Zone from a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a rocket struck in an area between the embassy and the main U.S. dining facility. A U.S. official said two people were injured.

The third attack came as Rice was completing a tour of the tactical operations center in the embassy on her way to the ceremony. Those waiting for her to appear took shelter in hallways until the all-clear was sounded, while Rice stayed in the operations center and watched tracking screens indicating the rocket's launch site in Sadr City and its trajectory.

The Green Zone has come under steady bombardment from Sadr City, home to Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, since U.S. and Iraqi troops began moving into the area several weeks ago.

Under continued pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces, Sadr has warned that he might declare all-out war. In the same Post article, Condi said "I don't know whether to take him seriously or not." Here's a tip: take him seriously.

Rumor has it that the Sadrists have asked Ayad Allawi to help mediate an agreement to end U.S. operations in Sadr City, although the Sadrists deny it. Let's hope that an opportunity emerges that allows Sadr to back off and rejoin the political process while saving face. The alternative would be a disaster for Iraq.