October 30, 2006

Sadr Off!

Hatched by Dafydd

Paul Mirengoff of Power Line makes a good point about the efficacy of putting Muqtada Sadr down. But it started a flock of seagulls in my brain.

Jack Kelly, national-security writer for the the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, penned (phosphored?) a column forthrightly titled "We must get rid of al-Sadr." First, I must note that I'm very, very unimpressed by both the writing and thinking of Mr. Kelly. His column is written about at the level of a typical blog (Power Line is far more literate); it's conclusory and dismissive and drips with such sweeping opinion-mongering as "and people wonder why U.S. policy in Iraq is failing," and "it will be embarrassing for President Bush to admit the failure of the Iraqi government."

(Generally, Kelly thinks very little of the Iraq government; I certainly get the sense he thinks we'd all be better off if Iraq were our colony, much as the Congo belonged to France and Belgium.)

What's more, the only source he cites for anything is an anonymous "Army sergeant in a Baghdad intelligence unit," who e-mailed -- not Jack Kelly -- but the WSJ's James Taranto! Presumably, Kelly doesn't even know himself who the sergeant is or how qualified he is to make observations. Mr. Sergeant says just what Kelly longs to hear; to nobody's amazement, Kelly quotes Mr. Sergeant.

Nevertheless, the idea that we should kill Sadr is a good one. But I really wish I didn't have Mr. Kelly on my side, for he makes no particular argument at all how killing Sadr would help anyone -- nor does he consider any consequences other than Bush's "embarassing" admission of putative failure and a glib reference to an "uprising," as if that were of no consequence.

Paul has noticed this lack as well:

I wonder whether bringing down a given milita and/or its leader would make much difference at this point. My understanding is that the Shia militias exist mainly to inflict harm upon, and do battle with, the Sunnis. Given the "demand" for such units, it's questionable whether we can cut off the supply.

So let me fill in the missing argument that Mr. Kelly could not seem to articulate.

First, on the basic level, Paul is correct: killing Sadr would not put the Mahdi Militia out of existence. Actually, I would suggest killing not just Sadr, but the number two and number three guys, all more or less simultaneously (within a few days of each other). This would leave the lower tier people wondering which of them would become the new leader.

Let 'em fight it out.

Second, Paul asserts that there is a fixed "demand" on the part of Shia for killing Sunnis; but I'm not persuaded. Iraq has always been more tribal than sectarian. Many of the biggest tribes include both Sunni and Shiite members; and until Saddam came along and set the two sects at each other's throats (quite deliberately), they knocked together quite decently in Iraq.

I don't think the war between Shia and Sunni has gone on long enough in Iraq to have become the new norm. I don't even think the Shia thought of Saddam's as a "Sunni" dictatorship... more likely as the dictatorship of the Tikriti tribe, which included Shia, Sunni, and even a prominent Christian (Tariq Aziz).

I don't see this "demand" for continued butchery among most Iraqis... else we'd see Baghdad levels of sectarian slayings in the rest of the country. Were such demand universal, we would see armies of tens of thousands of Shia (and Sunni) fanning out across the country; it would be an actual civil war, not a tit for tat series of spree killings.

Rather, I suspect the killing continues because a small but very determined group of people thinks the gang-war is "winnable," and each person sees himself as the victor. It's less like the Civil War and more like the Mafia wars of mid-20th-century New York City: those, too, went on for decades... yet at no time could one say that the Italian population of that city "demanded" such killings.

If the leadership of that small cadre which is carrying out the slaughters were to be removed (by any means necessary), I cannot imagine that the Shia and Sunni residents of Baghdad would pine for the good old days of death squads committing 100 murders a day.

But what other effects would there be? Kelly casually mentions an "uprising" that would follow us snuffing Sadr; but he doesn't seem to lose any sleep over it:

If we act against Mr. Sadr, there will be an uprising. It will be bloody. But continued inaction pretty much guarantees slow motion defeat.

Well, yeah; but nobody is calling for "continued inaction." The Bush administration is not inactive; it's just active doing things other than what Mr. Kelly wants them to do.

But would there really be an uprising? Why? And who would lead it? Sadr, whatever his deficiencies in intelligence and theological knowledge (and they seem to be legion), has an immense personal charisma... obviously, otherwise that fat, unlettered slob wouldn't be the head of the strongest militia in Iraq. The Mahdi Militia gives all the appearance of being a cult of personality revolving around Muqtada Sadr's head.

By the same reasoning, Musab Zarqawi must have been astonishingly charismatic (it's a local function; he might not have impressed a gathering of Elks in Minnetonka). Zarqawi led al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia in two major uprisings in Fallujah... yet when we killed him, I recall no massive uprising in his honor or memory.

Uprisings rarely happen sponteneously; riots happen spontaneously, but uprisings need leadership. The Badr Brigades are not going to mourn the passing of Sadr; nor will the Shia, and the Kurds won't care. The secularists under Iyad Allawi will be glad to see the back of him. So the only group we must fret over is the specific sect of Shiite militiamen who owe allegiance to Muqtada Sadr himself.

I'm sure some of them may try to take revenge; but if the Badr Brigades are doing their job, as soon as they realize Sadr has been whacked, they will launch an attack on their greatest enemy -- meaning those Iraqis closest to them in belief, custom, and history, the Mighty Mahdi Militia. What with the external attack and the War of the Roses going on to decide succession to Sadr, I doubt anybody in al-Mahdi will have much energy to devote to attacking Americans for a while.

But I still haven't articulated the good that would come of this... that is, aside from the sheer schadenfreude of seeing Sadr's earthly remains. First and foremost, Sadr is Iran's toehold in Iraq: he is Iran's go-to guy. Of course they would get someone else; but it would take time, they would be in disarray until they did, and he would not likely be as powerful and charismatic as Sadr.

But here is the hidden charm. I believe Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would actually like to see the militias disarmed. Not because he's a good guy; don't mistake my point. Rather, I think Maliki reasons thus:

  1. I am the titular tribal warlord of Iraq.
  2. Yet I control no personal forces: the army and police belong to the state, not me personally; and I control none of the large militias.
  3. Now that I'm on top, it's time to blow the whistle and end the game. If the militias would all just "softly and suddenly vanish away," then there would be nobody who could challenge my military authority (except the infidels, and they don't really care anyway).
  4. But I cannot actually go after the militias... because that would require me to crack down on Moqtada Sadr, and I desperately need his voting bloc to stay in power.

Kelly referred vaguely and in passing to this point:

To maintain this fiction [of the Iraqi government], we won't take actions Mr. Maliki doesn't approve of. But he depends upon the 28 votes Mr. Sadr controls in the Iraqi parliament in order to maintain his tenuous grasp on power. Prodding from the United States has so far been insufficient to get him to give them up. Mr. Maliki has declared which side he's on, and it isn't ours.

True; but it's not Sadr's side, either. Maliki is on one and only one side: his own.

If Sadr were killed, and if Maliki were clearly not involved, then what would the "28" do? I can't see them allying with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), for they control the Badr Brigades. And they're certainly not going to support a Sunni or a Kurd.

This leaves the Dawa Party as the only other powerful Shiite political party. The head of Dawa is Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and his principal deputy is (ta da!) Nouri al-Maliki. Jaafari cannot be prime minister again; he was the one chucked out last time and is completely unacceptable to SCIRI, to the Sunnis, to the Kurds, and to the secularists.

So the only choice left for the 28 seats currently controlled by Sadr, in the event of his untimely demise, would be to continue supporting Maliki, as they have been doing all along.

Thus, were the Coalition to kill off Sadr, Maliki would still have the 28 votes of Sadr... but no Sadr sticking his hand up Maliki's badonkadonk (eew) to work the PM's mouth. Not only that, but with Mahdi in such distress, Maliki would have the green light to crack down hard on the Badr Brigades... the other Shiite party's militia. After all, Mahdi would be out of commission for a while.

So we would get a "twofer" -- the Mahdi Militia would be bereft of its leadership, leaving it to flop around like a beheaded snake; and the government of Iraq would likely move heavily against the Badr Brigades... and maybe even against the Mahdi Militia, once Maliki is sure of his power base in the absence of Muqtada Sadr.

Sometimes, when a situation has crystalized in a very unuseful position, the best thing we can do is vigorously shake the box: whatever we end up with will probably be better than what we have now.

I think this is one of those times. Rolling my eyes at the rest of Mr. Kelly's column, I second his call for us to put Sadr down.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, October 30, 2006, at the time of 3:11 AM

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The following hissed in response by: Terrye


I think you are right. Maliki is in an impossible position to some extent. In truth we should have taken out Sadr before the government was even formed. But, maybe not. I have discovered that sometimes the choices are not between good and bad but bad and worse. My guess is there is more going on here than we know about and Kelly is just completely overlooking the fact that there was an election in Iraq.

The above hissed in response by: Terrye [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 30, 2006 4:00 AM

The following hissed in response by: howardhughes

Ralph Peters also subscribes to eliminating al Satr.
The best solution to the militia and criminal violence in Baghdad, however, where most of the violence in Iraq is perpetrated, would be to send in the Iraqi Army and its strongest general. The general should have the authority to order Predator drones, selected artillery, and air strikes to fire on and destroy the militias. Survivors should be vetted and inducted into the Iraqi Army; then debriefed to ascertain how Iran and others support the militias. The criminals should be returned to prison.
The U.S. would avoid animosity and bad PR while at the same time establishing the Iraqi Army as a counterweight to meddling politicians. And serious steps to limit Iran and its allies interference in Iraqi affairs could be mounted. Just killing the top dog or dogs will not stop the violence.
Finally, the attempt by the U.S. to police before its soldiering mission is completed or to meld them into one operation is a wrong stategy. Only soldiers can win on a battlefield. The policing operation can succeed in a stabilized society after combat operations have ended. This new tactic will lead to decreased American casualties.

The above hissed in response by: howardhughes [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 30, 2006 5:04 AM

The following hissed in response by: jp phish

Some tidbits to chew on:

  • There was talk, early in the war, of putting Sadr on trial for murder.
  • The Badr Brigade was initially formed to enforce Sharia, and still does this
  • There has been Shia-on-Shia fighting
  • Polls show that most Iraqis do not want the militias.

Bottom line: The problem is Sharia; its status in the new Iraq. If it is allowed to prevail over individual freedom then there may be a role for the Badr Brigade, but only after a power struggle. There will other militias vying to be the Sharia enforcer.

Sadr can be marginalized, I am confident that the Iraqis know how best to do this.

The above hissed in response by: jp phish [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 30, 2006 6:29 AM

The following hissed in response by: Section9

Sadr is an Iranian stooge, and should be put down for that reason alone. Luca Brasi to the White Courtesy Telephone, please....

The above hissed in response by: Section9 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 30, 2006 12:47 PM

The following hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz

Section9 is correct. Sadr is an Iranian stooge. Not that we shouldn't kill him and everybody whoever said hello to him, but it will not solve the problem which is Iran.

Michael ledeen is, as usual, right on point.

The above hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 30, 2006 8:19 PM

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