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April 2, 2008

Surge Success Runs Into Sadr

by Khody Akhavi

As the fifth year of U.S. discontent came and went, presidential candidates jousted with each other about how best to assuage the fears of ordinary citizens over a war that – in nearly all estimates – has gone terribly wrong.

The Iraq debacle may have temporarily faded from the U.S. public's consciousness, as recent polls show citizens increasingly concerned about the economy sliding into a recession.

But for anybody reading the news over the weekend, the military offensive waged by the U.S.-supported government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week was a palpable reminder that the "situation in Iraq" has not necessarily "turned around," as President George W. Bush claimed in a speech earlier this month that marked the fifth year of the war.

Fighting raged for more than four days since Maliki last Tuesday ordered the security forces to raid strongholds of Shia militiamen loyal to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the southern port city of Basra. On Sunday, Sadr ordered his militiamen to stop fighting Iraqi security forces, but as of that day, 488 people had been killed and more than 900 wounded, according to reports from the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

President Bush hailed the offensive as a "positive moment" and said it offered proof that the fledgling Iraqi government could defend itself. Conservative strategists continue to use the overall drop in violence in Iraq as a vehicle to bolster the fallacious logic that the troops "surge" has been an unqualified success. And so, at least discursively, a "success" for the Basra offensive should reflect the long-term gains made by the "surge."

"The surge," said Bush earlier this month, "has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror. …We are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his terror network. And the significance of this development cannot be overstated."

While it is true that the surge has helped contain violence, it was initially implemented to provide the breathing space for political reconciliation that has not yet occurred between opposing factions.

"The security gains that we have seen are real, but they are perishable," said Michelle Flourney of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington-based national security think tank established in 2007.

"Since November, things have sort of leveled off and it seems very difficult to drive down levels of violence any further," she said during panel discussion last week at the Washington-based think-tank the Center for American Progress. "The only way we will get below this plateau is through political accommodation."

The battles over the past week underscore a more troubling reality: the rhetoric coming from the White House cannot be corroborated on the ground, and in the long term, will have a damaging impact on the U.S. goals in Iraq, and broader national security and strategic objectives. In spite of the military force used by Maliki – in addition to air support provided by the U.S.-led coalition forces – the most recent conflict to erupt in Iraq will most likely be mitigated by negotiation.

As McClatchy Newspapers reported Sunday, Iraqi lawmakers traveled to the Iranian holy city of Qom during the weekend to win the support of the commander of Iran's Quds Brigades to persuade Sadr to order his followers to stop military operations against the Iraqi government.

The influence of Iran cannot be overstated, and more troubling for the Bush White House, runs counter to their military and political objectives; to presumably pacify Iraq by limiting Iranian influence. It appears that Tehran has used the latest incident to bolster its own position, in the process undermining that of Maliki and his patrons.

"The Qom discussions may or may not bring an end to the fighting but they almost certainly have undermined Maliki – who made repeated declarations that there would be no negotiations and that he would treat as outlaws those who did not turn in their weapons for cash," according to McClatchy.

"The blow to his credibility was worsened by the fact that members of his own party helped organize the Iran initiative," it said.

Wrote Anthony H. Cordesman in a New York Times opinion editorial that appeared Sunday: "Much of the reporting on this fighting in Basra and Baghdad – which was initiated by the Iraqi government – assumes that Mr. Sadr and his militia men are the bad guys who are out to spoil the peace, and that the government forces are the legitimate side trying to bring order. This is a dangerous oversimplification, and on that the United States needs to be far more careful about endorsing."

Cordesman is a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

With the dreary milestone of 4,000 U.S. combat deaths past, politicians remain locked in a disingenuous debate that seems to obfuscate the profound challenges facing the U.S., not just in Iraq, but throughout the region in the coming years.

"The issue is not Iraq. The issue is dealing with the consequences of our failure in Iraq," said Andrew J. Bacevich, a platoon leader in Vietnam who is now a professor of international relations at Boston University.

The U.S., said Bacevich, faces monumental problems as it recalibrates its national security strategy to account for the failures of the Bush Doctrine, a shift that is unlikely to occur while Bush remains in office.

Referring to the Iraq Study Group report, a bipartisan effort that the Bush administration referred to as impractical and unrealistic, Bacevich said, "The biggest requirement is for some kind of a full-scale regional diplomatic effort based on the expectation … that every country in the region, even those who don't like us, like Syria and Iran … have a common interest in avoiding having the region descend into utter chaos."

Regardless of how the surge is couched, it will have to end, not due to shift in strategy, but because the available resources will dry up.

"You can't take a 43 brigade force, and have 23 of those 43 brigades deployed, and have a one to one exchange for time at home and time in the theater," said Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, a Vietnam veteran and former president of the Army War College.

"Without reshaping our national military strategy and without re-slicing the defense pie to focus on the wars we have rather than the ones we want, we'll never have the resources to prosecute any kind of conflict in the future," he said.

"Your national security strategy is supposed to determine the number of troops that you need to affect that strategy rather than the actual number of troops that you have determining the national military strategy," said Scales.

The last time the White House had to shift strategy to meet conditions on the ground was during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s, he added.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Khody Akhavi writes for Inter Press Service.

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