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March 25, 2008

Potentially Very Bad
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So, the news from Iraq today isn't good

Iraqi forces clashed with Shiite militiamen Tuesday in the southern oil port of Basra and gunmen patrolled several Baghdad neighborhoods as followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered a nationwide civil disobedience campaign to demand an end to the crackdown on their movement.

Explosions rang out across central Baghdad as rockets or mortars fired from Shiite areas targeted the U.S.-protected Green Zone for the second time this week.

The violence was part of an escalation in the confrontation between the Shiite-run government and al-Sadr's followers — a move that threatens the security gains achieved by U.S. and Iraqi forces. At least 22 people were killed in the Basra fighting.

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. 

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If you look at the graph that MNF-I has been using on civilian casualties it looks to tell a pretty clear story.  The first major drop in violence came in early 2007 before the troop surge.  It looks like it was mostly based on the fact that the worst of the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad had been completed (I outlined this argument more throughly a few months back). 

The second drop in violence came in September.  By that time the full surge had already been in effect for 2-3 months and the Awakening had been going on for a year.  The Sadr ceasefire occured on August 28 and suddenly boom a big drop in violence.  That could be a coincidence and it could be that all four factors came together.  But the data seems to point to the fact that the Sadr Ceasefire more then anything else is what caused the drop in violence in the early fall.

If that is in fact the case, we really have to hope that this is only a temporary spat and that the ceasefire holds.  If not, the situation could deteriorate very quickly.   

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We know this isn't a "temporary spat," since Sadr sought to establish himself and his Mahdi Army as a separate Shiite political force immediately after Saddam Hussein's fall. In the past he has engaged Iraqi government forces, gunmen belonging to other Shiite factions, and (in 2004) American main force units as part of efforts to gain influence among Iraqi Shiites. A good question is why he is urging civil disobedience now.

To answer that question, we'd need to know the right answers to several others. What does Sadr want himself, and does he have a political strategy for obtaining it? How does what he want relate to the objectives of factional leaders within the organization that is nominally under his leadership? How much control can he exercise over what his nominal subordinates do, and under what circumstances can he exercise it? What is the relationship of his organization to the extraordinarily nasty criminal enterprises in Iraq? How concerned are he and his advisers about repeating the experience of 2004, when direct confrontations with American infantry and armor led to many hundreds of Mahdi Army fighters being killed? How concerned are Sadr and his advisers about the effects on his constituency of the 2006-07 bloodletting in Baghdad (the location of much of Sadr's power base among Shiites)? What is the extent and nature of Iranian influence within his organization, within other Shiite factions, and within Iraqi security agencies? Finally, what is the balance of power between the Mahdi Army, the government, and the other Shiite factions in Iraq, and within Iraq's several provinces?

These are very difficult questions. It isn't clear that their answers would necessarily point toward either a renewed reduction in violence or an explosion of intra-Shiite fighting. It appears likely to me, however, that at least some factions within Sadr's movement, and possibly some outside it, will see mounting IED and other dispersed attacks against American forces as a way to enhance their status in the eyes of Shiites frustrated with the occupation, of Shiites disadvantaged by the government, of one or more Iranian security agencies, or all three. Not all intra-Shiite disputes will involve American forces (for example, the reportedly vicious fighting in Basra is occurring where no American troops are deployed). Some of them, though, probably will.

In another unfortunate case of premature Iraq elation, the Wall Street Journal last week celebrated the decline and fall of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Al-Sadr. Echoing the "bring 'em on" taunt of their former boss, ex-Bush advisers Dan Senor and Roman Martinez triumphantly asked "Whatever Happened to Moqtada?" But as the renewed turmoil in Baghdad and violent chaos in Basra suggest, the answer may be, "he's back."

For the details, see:
"Moqtada Al-Sadr Answers the Wall Street Journal."

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