Saturday, March 17, 2007
you can have it all, my empire of dirt:
BAGHDAD -- Supposedly this is my last day at CPIC. Supposedly. We'll see. It's been good for getting my writing done, at least. Thanks to CPIC and to all my fellow journalists who've passed through during this time for putting up with me.

In other news, al-Qaeda in Iraq/the Islamic State of Iraq/the Continuously Rebranded Islamic Emirate of Mesopotamia Etc Etc still manages to lose. According to Michael Gordon in the New York Times, in December, al-Qaeda attempted a sectarian offensive in Baghdad, eastern Anbar, western Diyala, and southern Salahuddin. What happened?
But Shiite militias, particularly Mahdi Army operatives, responded with their own offensive, forcing the Sunni militants to retreat.
al-Qaeda and allied Sunni Iraqi jihadists were sufficiently disrupted as to retreat to Sunni areas on the outskirts of Baghdad, where now the U.S. is pursuing them. But what also happened is that when the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias opted to lay low during the early phase of the surge/Baghdad security plan, al-Q had an opening. Hence all the car bombs in Baghdad; the chlorine attack in Ramadi; etc.

This adds another layer to the picture Colonel Sutherland presented this week of Sunnis driven from Baghdad and rampaging in Diyala despite declining sectarian violence in the province. What it suggests is that, basically, the counterweight to the Sunnis provided by the Shiite militias is either diminished or gone, and in its absence the Sunnis have a freer hand. (That presumes that most of the sectarian violence -- murders, kidnappings -- are primarily Shiite actions, and the truth is probably more complicated.) It's certainly possible that some Sunnis have fled Baghdad in the face of the surge, but they're not all just in one place at one time.

Point number one: al-Q showed itself not to be a match for even the Mahdi Army, often described as a ragtag band of inexpert enthusiasts. That's not to hold a brief for the JAM, only to try to understand relative strength between Iraq's combatants. It would be a mistake to assume that JAM will remain stronger just because it repulsed this recent offensive, but the Sadrists have advantages that al-Q doesn't: a huge and enthusiastic base of support and ready recruits, for instance, contrasting with Sunni anti-al-Q forces in Anbar and elsewhere.

Point number two: If al-Q can outlast the U.S. push into the Sunni regions around Baghdad where General Petraeus intends to pursue them, then will any sustained surge that tamps down the Mahdi Army have the unintended consequence of freeing al-Q's hand? And if so, will that create a countervailing tension to allow the Shiite militias to join (surely in a de facto sense) the Anbar Salvation Committee in an anti-al-Q campaign?

My read of Petraeus is that his answer would be no -- that it wouldn't be worth reducing pressure on one threat to create pressure on another. Everyone I've talked to here -- U.S. soldier, Iraqi policeman, Iraqi civilian, journalist -- considers JAM & the Shiite militias a massive long-term threat to the country, and they're right. But it appears that this recognition has its own set of consequences, and hopefully Petraeus can mitigate them.
--Spencer Ackerman