Is the U.S. Beginning to Miss the Point?

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That the U.S. is winning the gun battles against Shiite militiamen in the south is fairly obvious from the numerous reports of carnage coming out of the area ? and from this Washington Post story reporting a withdrawal of members of Muqtada al-Sadr?s Army of the Mahdi from Karbala and Kufa.

But is this really the point? In the end, the Shiites would still seem to be the main American allies in the Iraq project (a project which American officials lustily appear to be demolishing), and a legacy of butchery ? even against a hostile (but also a remarkably pitiable) force ? is very hard to overcome. At the same time, be assured that the ?arrangement? in Falluja has brought little of what the U.S. is looking for in Iraq: the latest news is that two Marines were killed there on Sunday, and today?s Al-Hayat reports that an Islamist group, the ?Mujahidoun of Falluja? has started implementing Islamic law in the town ? whipping people found with alcohol and parading them in the streets.

Muqtada is a thug and a murderer, but American success in Iraq doesn?t hinge on the bloody crushing of his forces. It?s up to the Iraqis to make him irrelevant. The Post observed, somewhat guilelessly:

The sudden withdrawal over the weekend of Sadr?s forces has perplexed some military officers after weeks of deadly street-to-street fighting. The insurgents, numbering in the hundreds, abandoned their refuge near the sacred shrines of Abbas and Hussein in Karbala. The streets remained calm for the second consecutive day after U.S. forces withdrew from a strategic mosque in the city center. In a time-tested guerrilla tactic, Sadr?s forces had vanished.

That could have been because the Shiite tribes in the area essentially told Sadr?s supporters to get out of the holy cities, or else. Somehow, it would help for the Americans to understand such methods, rather than to display the thick-headedness of this U.S. officer, on whom the subtleties of subdued negotiated solutions (so essential in the Middle East) seemed lost: ?There was no cease-fire, no deal made in Karbala ?We do not and will not make deals with militias or criminals.?

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  1. Fred, Young is very much PRO-war!

    He’s also right about the comments made by that military official about not negotiating with murderers. The whole point is to get the IRAQIS to handle Sadr. The question is how?

    If you believe Sadr’s people and some other Shiite figures, they say the US is responsible for the breakdown of a negotiated solution. I don’t buy it. It is clear from the WaPo report that Young mentions and from this story in the NYT that the Americans are very much still seeking a negotiated settlement where it would appear that the IRAQIS themselves marginalized Sadr. Take this quote from the NYT report:

    American officials say they have no intention of sending soldiers into the heart of Najaf, which is centered around the Shrine of Ali, dedicated to the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. They say they fear such an attack could provoke a backlash from Shiite Muslims around the world, and would prefer that senior clerics persuade Mr. Sadr to surrender.

    Young neglected to mention this quote from the WaPo report:

    “If there is progress to be made, we are open-minded, given that those two conditions are met — Moqtada al-Sadr faces justice and his illegal militia disbanded and disarmed,” said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. “But in the interim, we will continue to use our own methods for getting Moqtada’s militia off the streets.”

    I’ve discussed this a bit on my blog, and that’s why I don’t buy that the US is bloking a negotiated settlement. I think that Sadr is trying to get around facing charges for the murder of Kho’i. he has said in the past that he would disband his militia if the higher clerical authorities request it. They did, he hasn’t. So it’s not as pig-headed as Young seems to imply. At least I don’t think so.

    So is this indeed a combination of sticks and politics like one reader remarked here? It’s possible. I.e., the US will maintain the relentless pressure squeezing Sadr into a corner where he would have no choice but to take whatever deal the tribal chiefs and clerical authorities offer him. Young made a reference to the threats of the tribes. But there are also other Shiite militias (SCIRI’s and the Daawa party’s) who have been rumored to have attacked Sadrists themselves. So it’s not simply “after” he disappeared from Karbala. It’s been going on for a while.

    I think there might be yet another reason why the US is maintaining military pressure on Sadr. I think they cannot afford another re-run of Fallujah. As Young pointed out, that deal was a disaster (one that pissed off the Kurds and Shiites by the way). They can’t let Muqtada get that type of victory and maintain a grip on those cities through intimidation of other Shiites (something he had been doing). Young mentioned the Islamic laws and attacks on people with liquor. Well, Sadr has been doing that in his areas since the liberation! Many of the victims have been christians (since they can deal with liquor). Women also were being threatened (with beatings and acid) if they wandered around without their veils. These things make me skeptical about letting the Iraqis vote Sadr out (without the American pressure). While I do believe that he would be ousted from many areas (in fact, in several local elections in Iraq, Islamists lost), he has enough popularity to retain some parts that he would then continue to intimidate. I also believe that he would have sought to intimidate his way into other areas as well.

    Bottom line, I see Young’s point, and I agree to a certain degree. Empowering the Iraqis is the key here on out. Let them voice their opinions, let them take charge. Yet in some instances, a measured use of force is necessary to get a message accross and put thugs like Sadr in his place. Yet ultimately, it is the Iraqis that will have to do this kind of thing on their own, through the power of elections and politics. On that, Young is right.

  2. My knowledge of the Middle East and Iraq is based on what I’ve read, so I’m no expert, but it is pretty obvious that the way to get what you want is through:

    Bribery
    Extortion
    Negotiation
    Force

    For plenty of good reasons, the most recent being Bush I’s abandonment of our Iraqi allies in the early nineties, Iraqi’s wait as long as possible to declare their loyalty. Once it was clear Sadr would lose, the fence sitters felt able to declare themselves as favoring us and then booted out Sadr and his followers.

    Are we talking forest and trees with this general or what?

  3. I realize that Mr. Young writes from the Middle East, but my point would be, “Didn’t the U.S. GET the point?”

    Muqtada didn’t just LEAVE because he was unpopular, he left because he was defeated… The locals said get out AFTER he had failed.

    I’d chalk this up as a vitory, the proper combination of stick and diplomacy. The US’ prevented his seizure of power, THEN the US’ diplomacy did not give him the Gotterdammerung he wanted in Najaf and Karbala, and then it swung the opinion-makers to oppose him.

    So, I’d reiterate the point, that the US DOES understand the point of the exercise. Of course, I’m a chicken-hawk wing nut, that believes in the war, so what do I KNOW?

  4. I don’t get it. According to Young’s own simplified view of the situation, the US is still essentially doing it right. Is Young so anti-war that he’s missing the point?

  5. Why would they fear turning him into a martyr? He’s not a cleric, nor is even known as a revoutly religious figure. Now is the time to kill with impunity.

  6. “devoutly,” that is.

  7. The author writes “a legacy of butchery ? even against a hostile (but also a remarkably pitiable) force ? is very hard to overcome”

    The world (outside of the effete Queensebury rules promoted by some journalists) respects strength. The world does not respect losing.

    Saddam did not stay in power for that many years because he avoided a legacy of butchery. Ditto for Quadaffi and Kim Jong II.

    Or, to put it in perspective, a humorous quote: “The Romans did not build an empire by having meetings. The Romans built an empire by killing people who opposed them.”

    The ABSOLUTE WORST thing we could do in Iraq is to leave people alive who have challenged out dominance. The Iraqi people, long inured to subjugation, will not prosper in a country where bandit kings run wild in the streets. Those destabilizing elements must be removed from society — by killing them.

    This is the only path to peace.

  8. “Saddam did not stay in power for that many years because he avoided a legacy of butchery. Ditto for Quadaffi and Kim Jong II.”

    If our power, and the new Iraqi government’s power, is established and maintained in the manner of Saddam, Qadaffi, and Kim, we will have failed utterly in the liberation/democracy promotion objectives of this war.

    But remember, it’s only insane antiwar agitators who see this as an imperial adventure. Nice quote about the Romans.

  9. After our brutal mass murder of Germans and Japanese it is a wonder they even like us.

    With any luck the Iraqis will show a better sense of hatred. But I doubt it.

    Now let us take this very slowly from the Osama point of view. Strong horse. Weak horse. Who has the strong horse? Whose horse can’t be spooked? Evidently not Sadr’s horse. In fact if reports can be believed it may be a dead horse.

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