The Battle of Baghdad

It is ironic how the current battle in Baghdad has slipped from our attention. Rightly or wrongly I believe it will be the decisive battle in the Iraq war and think that it will receive far more attention from history than the press or even bloggers are giving it just now.

In this Wall Street Journal piece Zalmay Khalilzad, the American Ambassador to Iraq, also thinks the current battle for Baghdad is decisive.

The Battle of Baghdad will determine the future of Iraq, which will itself go a long way to determining the future of the world’s most vital region. Although much difficult work still remains to be done, it is imperative that we give the Iraqis the time and material support necessary to see this plan through, and to win the Battle of Baghdad.

However Iraq ends up Baghdad will always be the major city of the region and, even if the rest of the country is completely partitioned, Baghdad is a mixed city of six million people which will somehow have to remain open for business. If I were the Caliph of Baghdad I would declare it an open city and, like in Dodge City under Wyatt Earp, guns would have to be checked on the way into town. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple, but some sort of live and let live ethic has to develop in Baghdad if it is to prosper as the great capital it is.

Much attention has been drawn off by the war in Lebanon. There seems to still be some general agreement that Iran started it through their proxy Nasrallah to distract the international community from the Iranian nuclear program. I just don’t buy that nations and their diplomats are so easily distracted. But if the Iranians were trying to drive a wedge between Iraqi Shia and the US and distract everyone from their attempts to destabilize the government in Baghdad, they are doing much better. The muddiness of the situation aids these efforts. It isn’t very clear beyond their sponsorship of Sadr and his militias exactly who the Iranians are backing in Iraq and who they are not. We know that Grand Ayatollah Sistani is not their friend, despite being Iranian himself. The Badr brigades are another Shiite militia that is even more closely integrated into the government and with strong ties to Iran, but which is not – at least openly – a direct agent of Iran and mullocracy like Sadr. Of course there seem to be plenty of Iranian intelligence agents in Iraq and many reports of Iran supplying weapons. However, from what I can see at this distance there appears to remain some separation between the radical leadership of Iran and the Arab Shiites of Iraq. That gap is, and has always been, America’s main chance of establishing a majority government in Iraq that was not simply an extension of Iranian mullocracy.

As I write this there is an open battle going on between the Iraqi Army and Sadr’s militia in Baghdad. This battle, I believe, will be the real test of the will of the Iraqi government to prevail. It is the trickiest of jobs because Sadr is part of Prime Minister’s Malaki’s ruling coalition. While the August offensive in Baghdad has been quite successful at reducing the violence in several neighborhoods over the course of the month, the sudden upswing in violence over the last few days comes about because Sadr and his militia have been engaged. The Times if India reports:

At least 20 gunmen and 8 civilians were killed on Monday when the Iraqi Army battled fiercely for hours with members of a militia loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, in Diwaniya, Iraqi officials said.

The violence, which one Iraqi general said included militiamen executing Iraqi soldiers in a public square, amounted to the most brazen clashes in recent memory between Iraqi government forces and Sadr’s militia.

Some think Sadr has won because he captured and publicly executed some Iraqi soldiers who ran out of ammunition. I would see this as an initial skirmish that guarantees further attention from the Iraqi and the US armies. Remember the American military has twice defeated Sadr’s Mahdi army in Najaf. I would expect the American forces to begin to play a bigger role in the fight with Sadr, but the political case for having the Iraqi army lead the operation is a strong one. Perhaps Sadr’s forces will stand and fight, perhaps they will slip away as they did at Najaf, but I expect they will fight because they are on their home territory. However, the ongoing central issue is whether the Iraqi government has the political will to disarm one of its own supporters or let the US Army do it. Whatever role the US forces take, I expect the US military will take greater care to see that the Iraqi Army doesn’t suffer logistic lapses and run out of ammunition as the battle continues.

David Ignatius, reporting on a tour with General Abizaid of neighborhoods pacified in the current offensive characterized the relationship of the US and Iraqi forces this way:

What does the new battle of Baghdad tell us? I’m still mulling the answer, but my sense is that it’s something we already knew: With enough troops and aggressive tactics, American forces can bring order to even the meanest streets. But it’s only the Iraqis themselves who can stabilize these neighborhoods permanently.

I would be surprised if General Abizaid and the great majority of US troops haven’t already figured this out for themselves.

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