On sending more troops to Iraq
Washington is giving serious thought to sending more than 20,000 troops to Baghdad mainly to militarily defeat the Mahdi militia of the nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. This could be Americaâ€™s greatest blunder so far and also cause the world to see it as an act of desperation.
Supporters of this option hope it would strengthen Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malikiâ€™s hands by removing a main obstacle to political deals among Iraqis. That would help to stabilize the country within two years, allowing the US to depart gracefully.
These supporters should take a slow breath and think through the issues. There is a real risk that the US troops will be held to a draw like the Israelis were by Hizbullah. The political effects would be the opposite of the supportersâ€™ hopes.
The Mahdi army is very popular with the over 2 million poor Shiites crammed into a slum called Sadr City in Baghdad. The civilians would most likely give fighters aid and shelter. This is a long tradition hailing from the time when Sadr City residents were kept very roughly under the Saddam Husseinâ€™s jackboot.
Perhaps, some supporters hope that al-Sadr will order his militia to lay down arms to prevent war from entering his peopleâ€™s homes. Even if he does, recent reports suggest that he may not be obeyed because he no longer controls all the Mahdi armyâ€™s factions.
If the past is a guide, the Mahdi fighters will melt away before superior US forces and reappear soon after the Americans leave. The world would see that as defeat for US objectives, whatever the spin put by Washington. The fact that a Baghdad slum militia armed with light weapons foiled the mighty US and its protÃ©gÃ©s will bring endless encouragement to other enemies around the world.
Militarily defeating al-Sadr will require fighting house to house in crowded Sadr City. US casualties will be high if the Mahdi militiamen stand and fight a little before slipping away. The fighters are highly motivated local persons battle-hardened by three years of direct clashes with American, British and other coalition forces in Najaf, Kufa, Kut, Karbala, Nasiriyah, Amarah, Basra and other locations. Many will be fighting outside the homes where they were born.
Recourse to bombing from the air to protect US soldiers would cause heavy civilian casualties. The images on television would be far worse than those we saw during Israeli army incursions into the West Bankâ€™s refugee camps. The effect on Islamic viewers around the world will be devastating if Sadr City Shiites, who were among the most oppressed by Saddam, are seen being killed in their tens or hundreds by Americans or allied Iraqis.
In such emotion-charged situations, nobody reads the fine print about how militiamen used civilians as shields or how the new Iraqi army took the lead. In any case, the Iraqi armyâ€™s readiness and motivation for major battles against Shiites are far from clear.
The conflict could also inflame several parts of Southern Iraq since militias linked to the Mahdi army are present in many areas. Even 30,000 more American troops will find it difficult to fight in several spots at the same time in hit-and-run clashes of attrition.
It is hard to escape the thought that US troops may end up fighting brush fires around south and central Iraq rather than controlling Sadr City. Washington will certainly not be able to sustain such a pace because of political constraints and the well-known fact that enough soldiers are not available for prolonged conflicts.
The wisdom of destroying al-Sadrâ€™s power is also worth thinking through. If Iraq is not already in a civil war, it could certainly be after so much fratricide among Shiite factions, resulting from American policy.
Legislators loyal to al-Sadr currently back al-Maliki in Iraqâ€™s parliament because he is deputy head of the Islamic Al-Daâ€™wa Party, which al-Sadr has long supported. Crushing al-Sadrâ€™s militia will change the balance of power among Iraqâ€™s Shiite groups with gains going mainly to SCIRI â€“ the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
If that happens, the real gainer would be Iran, which strongly backs SCIRI, was home for decades to its leaders and trained, financed and armed its militias in the past.
Al-Sadr sympathizes with Iranian theocracy but has never depended on Teheran for shelter or aid. His father, killed by Saddam’s agents, was a higher ranking Grand Ayatollah than the current informal head of Shiites in Iraq, Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, who is Iranian by birth.
Iraq has a habit of playing out pessimistic rather than optimistic scenarios. Would American public opinion take responsibility this time on top of the devastation that has already happened?
The average person-on-the-street in America will not be able to blame a neo-conservative cabal or an incompetent White House. If the soldiers are sent, it will be on the watch of a Democratic legislature and a budding revival of centrism in US politics.