“Last chance” has a tone of defeatism, as if Iraq was a totally lost cause. It is anything but. In fact the huge change that’s been happening in the form of replacing a totalitarian regime with a democratic one is a lengthy process that cannot be accomplished through military action alone. Success has economic and social elements along with the military one in addition to international and regional cooperation. There is no wisdom in closing this file or abandoning it based on the results of one security operation.
To do so is to demand the impossible from the coming operations. The total eradication of terrorism and the militias within months is at best a long shot. The violence in Iraq is a result of domestic and regional conflicts that are not limited to Baghdad. In addition it is part of the heavy legacy of mistakes and evil left by the Baath era.
From where I sit in Baghdad I see clearly that those who talk about last chances are in fact rushing failure in Iraq. What they wish to do is to set up a very high bar that is technically impossible jump over within a few months or even a year.
Instead we need to identify what we really want to accomplish and can realistically accomplish through this plan. Total victory over militias and terrorists is a fantasy, and there are several examples of advanced nations that still suffer from persistent armed factions as in Spain or even the UK.
Let’s look at what’s possible. It is possible to stop the deterioration of security, limit the extension of insurgency, and limit the influence of militias. These three things should be the goals of the new campaign.
Let’s explore what can be technically done considering the capabilities and the challenges:
- Liberating the sectors of Baghdad that are totally occupied by insurgents or militias through clearing and holding these sectors with sufficient troops after clearing them. In this way life can return to an acceptable condition similar to late 2003-early 2004.
- The above should be accompanied by collecting weapons off the streets. It is no secret that enormous amounts of weapons came into the hands of the people following the looting of camps of the former army. These were in addition to weapons that were already stashed by members of the former regime and its security apparatus. This had not been dealt with seriously so far and possessing weapons is still not considered an act of terror by the government. On the contrary some describe possessing weapons, even illegal weapons, as an act of self-defense.Yes, having a weapon for defensive use is a justified need at this time but registering those weapons is of great importance to security.I’m not saying it’s possible to collect or register each and every weapon in Baghdad but serious effort must be put into this.
- Another effective thing to do is helping a decent number of displaced families return to their homes. This would diminish the sectarian lines that are dividing the city, and reestablish the diversity that is an integral part of Baghdad’s identity and social structure. We must act to reverse forced displacement, and stop this alien phenomenon from becoming an unwritten law, so returning those families to their homes and providing them with protection will add a lot to stability and normalcy in Baghdad.
It was good to see the economic factor getting some attention in both Maliki’s and Bush’s plans because unemployment is one of the reasons young frustrated men choose a violent path to make money. This is most evident with militias such as the Mehdi army whose main bulk of fighters belong to this category.
Speaking of the Mehdi army, the word here is that they will try to avoid a direct confrontation. They’ve been through it before and paid a heavy price. Moreover, militias have an advantage over insurgents or al-Qaeda in that they occupy many seats inside the parliament and cabinet and enjoy privileges that they wouldn’t like to lose. That’s why their response to the threat comes in two elements; to avoid a costly confrontation; to maintain the no-peace, no-war status that serves this faction’s interests.
The first element is represented by ending their boycott of the cabinet and parliament that was started when Maliki met with Bush.
Back then the Sadrists put high demands in return for ending the boycott, but now things have changed as they began to realize the change in Maliki’s attitude. They are now presenting much lower demands.
Al-Sabah had a brief report about this:
Nassar al-Rubai’i the chief member of the Sadr’s bloc in the parliament said in a statement that the movement would resume political work very soon “talks are under way in this regard and progressing well. The Sadr bloc will be back in the parliament and government very soon…
The second element is tactical and military; Azzaman reported that Sadr made direct orders for the ranks of his militia to avoid open war with the US military:
Commanders of the Mehdi army in Baghdad received strict orders not to fire a single bullet during the American military campaign in Baghdad…an informed source told Azzaman that the meeting was held in a place in sector 42 of Sadr city and many of the Mehdi army leaders attended it while others missed it because they were already in Iran since last week. The top lieutenants as well didn’t show up because they were ordered a few days ago to abandon Sadr city and spread in the southern provinces and other parts of the capital…the source explained that the orders were given to show full cooperation with the American forces during the raids and show no resistance even when arrests are made. The commanders were promised that the police would take care of releasing any detainees once “the storm is gone”…
So what options will the Iraqi and US military have when the militia melt and avoid the confrontation? We know that the Mehdi army does not have camps or barracks or any solid foundations that can be targeted. The militia is merely a network of civilian-looking people who can turn into a deadly force at any time they choose to do so.
What the troops can do is to target the top leaders and lieutenants of the militia who have a criminal history and made mistakes (whether by physical act or statements) for which they can be legally prosecuted. If this is done the network will be dealt a serious blow, and be weakened by loss of command and financial support. The network would disintegrate into isolated gangs that can be dealt with through limited operations.
Finally, the new plan for Iraq must involve cleaning out the bad elements within the security forces by excluding those with who joined the forces to serve a certain party or sect, and rehabilitating the army and police forces on basis of competence and loyalty to the country.
This country will not be able to enforce the law and contain the violence until the people can trust the security forces.The latter will not be strong enough to win this trust until they get rid of the harmful elements who are breaking the law and causing much of the trouble.
Again, I hope to see realism in setting achievable goals by the Iraqi and US leaderships. We need to fix our eyes on the possible and achievable for now. Only this will pave the ground for more steps forward in Iraq’s future.