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    Middle East
     Mar 16, 2007
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Surge and destroy in Iraq
By Michael Schwartz

If you are trying to figure out how US President George W Bush's new strategy is progressing, or just trying to figure out what is happening in Iraq, here is a diagnosis and a bit of a prognosis.

Bush has promised three prongs to his new strategy: (1) attacking and neutralizing Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia; (2) confronting Iran; and (3) a new offensive against Sunni insurgents.

Neutralizing the Mehdi Army: Since 2004, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been the Shi'ite the Bush administration has most loved

to hate. Early in the war, occupation officials tried to have him arrested and fought three large battles (two in Najaf, one in the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr City) in an attempt to suppress his guerrilla militia, the Mehdi Army. Each time, he and his forces, deeply entrenched in Sadr City, have bounced back stronger and more popular than ever. In its fourth manifestation, the intention to dislodge, disrupt or destroy the Mehdi Army appears guaranteed to fail. It is just a matter of what sort of failure the US will choose.

As the new strategy has so far been implemented, US military tactics seem designed to yield a relatively modest failure, though one that may prove indirectly responsible for significant Iraqi civilian casualties. US troops have begun operations in Sadrist strongholds (notably Sadr City), which were, until late last year, US "no-go zones".

But they are not trying to pacify them, as they have been attempting with Sunni neighborhoods in the capital. Instead, they are mounting raids designed to arrest specific Sadrist leaders, while leaving the rest of the community alone. So far, Muqtada's men have decided to lie low and not resist the US intrusions (though the targeted individuals are frequently gone when the Americans arrive, often resulting, evidently, in the arrest of any fighting-age man in the vicinity). There are even rumors that Muqtada is cooperating with at least some of the arrests, allowing the Americans to apprehend "rogue" Mehdi Army leaders who have not been following his orders.

Whatever the story may be, this strategy will leave the strength of the Mehdis - who are not just a militia but, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, a social movement with deep and complex ties to, and support from, poor Shi'ite communities - unimpaired. It cannot generate sufficient arrests to decapitate the militia; nor can its "hit and run" tactics undermine the political and military domination exercised by the Sadrists in these neighborhoods. At best, it is a kind of ongoing harassment, a symbolic denial of Sadrist power.

It will not be surprising, therefore, if the US escalates these raids into larger-scale attacks on Sadrist strongholds. If this were done, it would involve the sort of brutal invasions currently being undertaken in Sunni neighborhoods. Typically these attacks begin when US troops close off an area, demand that all women and children leave, and then initiate a house-to-house sweep, treating the community, in essence, as a "free-fire zone". Each house is inspected for lurking insurgents or other suspicious characters (sometimes simply any men of fighting age) and searched for arms caches (which are plentiful). Anyone who evades the invaders, hinders their search, or offers any sort of resistance may be considered an enemy combatant. The level of destruction can be quite awesome.

If the US tries this in Sadrist strongholds, the Mehdis will have no choice but to fight back; they will not sit by while their communities are savaged. This could trigger a guerrilla confrontation in Shi'ite communities much like the ferocious fighting that has been seen in Sunni areas. The battle of Tal Afar, which in 2005 turned parts of that city into ghost neighborhoods and reduced a quarter of it to rubble (still not cleared away), has been explicitly mentioned as a "model" for these sorts of offensives.

It is one thing to mount such attacks against Iraq's Sunni minority. Used against the 60% majority Shi'ite community, these tactics would likely spur a response that would spread around the country and prove disastrous for US plans, which are already in tatters. The Mehdis would certainly retaliate in other neighborhoods - wherever, in fact, the Americans are vulnerable. If the US military is already almost drowning in the Sunni insurgency, imagine the predicament of US troops should they suddenly have to fight any significant number of Shi'ites as well.

Such a development would have two clear consequences: an exponential growth in the strain on an already overstretched US military, and a dramatic increase in the use of air power to back up embattled troops on the ground. Together, these could result not just in massacres, but in the rubble-ization of significant parts of Baghdad and possibly other Iraqi cities.

If the US military stays with its current strategy of surgical incursions, it might escape with only a modest defeat. If it escalates, it is courting unmitigated disaster in the wake of unprecedented brutality.

Confronting Iran: There are all sorts of symptoms of the new approach to Iran, including the (mostly trumped up) accusations about that country supplying Iraqi insurgents with advanced weaponry, the arrests of accused Iranian infiltrators and their Iraqi

Continued 1 2

The fall guy in Iraq (Mar 13, '07)


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