As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Great Unraveling

Iraq is actually falling apart on all sides. There's a reason that Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker are calling for a pause in drawing down troop levels. There are major fires burning on both sides of the sectarian divide.

As I discussed last week, substantial numbers of the Sunni Awakening groups are contemplating a general strike, frustrated with delays in cash payments and the refusal of the central Shiite government to integrate them into the Iraqi security forces. Marc Lynch has been tracking these increasing problems.

Because I've written so very much about this I'm not going to belabor the point, other than to repeat that this isn't just an unfortunate development in an otherwise sound approach. It's structural, and gets to the essence of the strategic failure of the surge. The Awakenings strategy was a smart, tactically successful adaptation to developments on the ground, and Petraeus's team has done the best it could with the hand it was dealt. But it has always been the case that the Awakenings strategy built up military power outside of the Iraqi state, and has never had a plausible theory of how that power would be harnessed into a unified, legitimate state. It achieved some of its short-term tactical ends, but worked against the strategic goal of creating an effectively sovereign Iraqi state with a security architecture sustainable without US forces.

Lynch thinks the US should give Nouri al-Maliki an ultimatum to stop payments to these Sunni groups and transfer the responsibility to the Ministries of Interior or Defense (who can use all that oil money the government is hoarding), because without integration there will never be a hope to reconcile the disparate sectarian groups and instead you'll simply have this extra-governmental armed force. But as the Bush Administration's goal is merely to keep a lid on violence until the next President takes over, that's not likely to happen.

As for keeping a lid on violence, this is extremely worrisome.

A cease-fire critical to the improved security situation in Iraq appeared to unravel Monday when a militia loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr began shutting down neighborhoods in west Baghdad and issuing demands of the central government.

Simultaneously, in the strategic southern port city of Basra, where Sadr's Mahdi militia is in control, the Iraqi government launched a crackdown in the face of warnings by Sadr's followers that they'll fight government forces if any Sadrists are detained. By 1 a.m. Arab satellite news channels reported clashes between the Mahdi Army and police in Basra.

The freeze on offensive activity by Sadr's Mahdi Army has been a major factor behind the recent drop in violence in Iraq, and there were fears that the confrontation that's erupted in Baghdad and Basra could end the lull in attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and bombings.

The fighting in Basra show the intra-Shiite tensions bubbling over between the Sadrists and Shiite government forces, which is breaking down into such a bloodbath that the US is asking for a British surge in the south to deal with the splintering. What's actually more worrisome is the nationwide civil disobedience called for by Muqtada al-Sadr. In protest of the American and Iraqi forces taking advantage of his cease-fire to arrest Mahdi Army members, Sadr is closing down stores and having his supporters pour into the streets. Without a history of Martin Luther King-like civil disobedience in the country, I can't see how this remains nonviolent.

Now the million dollar question is: what is "a nationwide civil disobedience campaign?" If it is strikes and protests that's one thing. But if it is the beginning of the end of the ceasefire that is something very different. We have to wait and see.

But the issue is very serious. In fact it's huge. The drop in violence in Iraq has generally been attributed to four elements 1) More American forces and the change in tactics to counterinsurgency; 2) The Awakening movement; 3) The Sadr ceasfire; and 4) The ethnic cleansing and physical separation of the various sides.

It's hard to say for sure, which of these factors was the most important. The Bush Administration will tell you it's all about the troop levels. I've tended to believe it's more of a mix and was most inclined towards the Anbar Awakening and the sectarian cleansing as the important factors. But when you look at the data it really seems to indicate that the Sadr ceasefire may have been the key.

And that ceasefire is tenuous in the environment of a general strike and civil disobedience. If and when the Iraqi security forces imprison and punish, or God forbid scatter bullets at the striking Sadrists, would ANYONE expect a calm and measured response?

Of course not. And since nobody suffers more than George Bush for all the death and destruction in Iraq, expect him to bear the burden even more in the coming months. Their goal is of course to keep the country together just long enough to blame the eventual failure on somebody else, but it appears that events on the ground are overtaking that strategy.

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