TOPICS > Politics

Iraqi Forces Assert Security Control With Mixed Success

May 22, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Iraqi forces entered Sadr City in Baghdad this week to help curb ongoing fighting in the Shiite stronghold. The incursion is part of a wave of offensives that Gen. David Petraeus said Thursday were helping to improve overall security. Analysts examine the state of the Iraq conflict.

RAY SUAREZ: Now to the latest from Iraq in Washington and on the battlefield.

Through this month and last, Baghdad’s Shia stronghold of Sadr City has been the scene of heavy urban combat. American and Iraqi ground forces fought pitched battles against militias led by Muqtada al-Sadr. The cleric has been locked in an intra-Shiite political struggle with Prime Minister al-Maliki and his allies.

After weeks of fighting, the last few days have brought some quiet. Amid a fragile truce, Iraqi government forces re-entered Sadr City without American support in an effort to peaceably disarm the militias.

The troops and police were greeted by residents now able to venture out and by clerics bearing gifts, copies of the Koran.

The Shiite militiamen appear to have largely faded from the scene for now. An Iraqi military spokesman set the stage for the incursion.

BRIG. GEN. QASSIM AL-MOUSSAWI, Iraqi Military Spokesman (through translator): The troops that entered into Sadr City today are Iraqi army and police forces. The multinational troops have not taken part in this Operation Peace.

RAY SUAREZ: Fighting has been going on elsewhere in Iraq, too. In March, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a major offensive against Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra. After a halting start, Basra has now grown quiet, and the government is asserting more control there.

In a third Iraqi city, Mosul, joint Iraqi-American operations also continue. The target there is al-Qaida in Iraq, the Iraqi-born wing of the terrorist movement.

Today, General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq who’s slated to take over Central Command, told a Senate confirmation panel the offensives were having an impact.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces in Iraq: Recent operations in Basra, Mosul, and now Sadr City have contributed significantly to the reduction in violence. And Prime Minister Maliki, his government, the Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi people, in addition to our troopers, deserve considerable credit for the positive developments since Ambassador Crocker and I testified a month-and-a-half ago.

RAY SUAREZ: The inability of the Iraqi military and police forces to mount operations without major American assistance has blocked an American troop drawdown.

General Ray Odierno, whose confirmation to replace Petraeus was also pending today, said the Iraqi performance in those areas was an encouraging development.

LT. GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO, Former Commander, Multi-National Corps-Iraq: What we’ve seen consistently over the last 12 to 14 months is an improvement in the command and control, the ability of the Iraqi — they’re learning. They’re starting to understand the command and control at brigade, battalion, company level.

We’ve seen significant improvements in that, in their ability to do some planning. Of course, the issue always becomes capacity, and we still have to work on their full capacity to do this across the entire force.

Sadr city offensive

Feisal Istrabadi
Former Iraqi Official
The Iraqi government attempting to assert control over more and more parts of the country. There are a few pitched battles, some of them quite fierce. Then there's a cease-fire announced. What happens next is the question.

RAY SUAREZ: But the generals could not set a specific date when that capacity would come online fully.

For more on all of this, we get three views.

Feisal Istrabadi was Iraq's deputy representative to the United Nations from 2004 to 2007. He's now a visiting professor of law at Indiana University, Bloomington. He's both a U.S. and Iraqi citizen.

Juan Cole is a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan who follows developments in Iraq closely.

And Matt Sherman worked for the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq. He's now a consultant to the U.S. Army in Baghdad and to companies doing business in the Middle East.

Professor Istrabadi, what do you make of these latest military moves into Sadr City without American forces?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, Former Iraqi Representative to United Nations: Well, it seems that there has been a deal brokered. There was this kind of a cease-fire brokered in which, I think, Iran played a role.

I think what you're seeing is the Iraqi government attempting to assert control over more and more parts of the country. It remains to be seen, however.

There have been a number of times when either the United States or the United States with Iraqi forces have attempted to take on Muqtada al-Sadr. There are a few pitched battles, some of them quite fierce. Then there's a cease-fire announced. What happens next is the question.

If what happens is that the Jaish al-Mahdi, the Sadr forces, simply use the cease-fire as an opportunity to re-arm and to gain strength, which is what they've done in the past, that's one state of affairs. If political accommodations go forward, that's another state of affairs.

That's, I think, what we have to watch.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, do you think this is being done with the tacit agreement or tolerance of the Mahdi army?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Oh, absolutely. The Mahdi army is the one that set the condition that no U.S. troops were to go into Sadr City.

The Mahdi army hasn't been dissolved. That was what al-Maliki said he was going to do, he was going to dissolve it; he was going to disarm it. It hasn't been dissolved; it hasn't been disarmed.

It has voluntarily, under severe pressure from U.S. bombing, allowed the Iraqi army into a corner of Sadr City. And it seems to have agreed to give up heavy weaponry, the big Katyusha rockets and things like that.

But this is a climb-down on both al-Maliki's part and on the Mahdi army's part.

RAY SUAREZ: Why would they agree, then, Matt Sherman? Why would they agree to at least set aside their weapons for the time being and allow the government to show its mastery over this Shia stronghold?

MATTHEW SHERMAN, Former Deputy Senior Adviser, Iraqi Ministry of Interior: I think there's a shift that's going on right now within the Sadrist movement away from the military tract and Jaish al-Mahdi more to a political tract, because there's a lot more that's invested in the political tract than the military one.

There are a number of significant political events that will be going on over the course of the coming weeks and months. One of them is an election law, which will set the guidelines for the upcoming provincial elections.

Number two are the provincial elections themselves, which are scheduled to happen later on this year.

You also have down the road national elections next year, and then also the possible formations of regions within Iraq.

And so the amount of political capital that's needed in order to kind of have those happen in a favorable way to them is important that it doesn't get sidetracked militarily, because if they did take military action in Sadr City or elsewhere, the costs would likely be very high, in terms of casualties and also very high in terms of political capital.

Factional struggles

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
What we have seen in Iraq in the past few years is a lot of these incremental back-and-forths, where guerrilla forces have been forced back and then they've come back in strength.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Istrabadi, this was not the only military action in the country this week. Iraqi government forces are also very active around Mosul and around Basra.

Taken as three operations, do they demonstrate that the Maliki government may be more able to effectively control security in the country and sometime in the near future?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Hopefully, yes. I think that the fear is -- over the last four years, over the last five years, since the U.S. intervention in Iraq, we have slowly lost ground, literally.

The authority in Baghdad, whether it was the United States before or successive Iraqi governments, have lost control over pieces of territory in Iraq.

And I think that there is a sense in this government that events are slipping away and that this may be a last opportunity, particularly given the political dynamics in this country, really to make an effort, both through political means and through military means.

And I think it's wrong to think of the two as being in the disjunctive, in the case of Iraq today, to move forward and to try to reclaim some lost ground.

RAY SUAREZ: What about you, Professor Cole? After a long time, when the al-Maliki government was considered pretty weak and hanging by a thread, does this look like a new assertiveness, a new confidence?

JUAN COLE: Well, it has yet to be seen whether it's all for show. I mean, if you take Mosul, for example, this is a city of 1.7 million. It's the second-largest city in Iraq. It's very important. It's up north.

Duraid Kashmula, the governor of Ninawa province, where Mosul is, came out and said last week that for the last few months Mosul had been dominated by what he called al-Qaida.

Now, al-Maliki has sent some troops up there. There's been no major battle. The jihadis appear to have faded away and without taking casualties. About a thousand people have been arrested.

I mean, how likely is it really that Mosul has suddenly gone from being al-Qaida-dominated to being in al-Maliki's hands with this mere show of force that really involve no major battle? I don't think it's very likely; I think this is a guerrilla war.

In a guerrilla war, guerrilla forces fade away to fight another day. And we haven't seen yet that al-Maliki can make this kind of thing stick.

RAY SUAREZ: Matt Sherman, respond to what Professor Cole just said.

MATTHEW SHERMAN: I think it's important to look at this as incremental steps. You can't just look at Mosul or Sadr City as individual events.

If anything, over the past, say, six to nine months, you've seen Maliki take gradual steps towards addressing the militia problem, particularly its more hardened wing.

When you started seeing him do operations down in Kut and Diwaniya about a half-year ago, then gradually go down, as we saw, into Basra a few weeks ago, which was initially supposed to be a very targeted operation, but then grew into something much larger. And now you're seeing Sadr City.

Now, this is, again, an incremental type of step. Is it going to be a huge battle? I don't think it's going to happen that way, because the Sadrists have much more to lose politically if they engage in full-scale battle.

RAY SUAREZ: Juan Cole?

JUAN COLE: Well, I agree that it's incremental, but the question is whether it's incremental to some purpose. You know, it's kind of like the trench warfare in World War I, where the forces, you know, would move three miles forward and then three miles back.

And what we have seen in Iraq in the past few years is a lot of these incremental back-and-forths, where guerrilla forces have been forced back and then they've come back in strength.

And the idea that the Mahdi army, which is really a series of neighborhood militias based in a large social movement that encompasses millions of people, that it can be pushed back so effectively in a few weeks with a few troops just seems to me fantastic.

So I think that what we're seeing now is really a struggle between factions in Iraq. Each party has its own militia. And al-Maliki is serving some militias rather than others, and they are positioning themselves for these elections in November of provincial assemblies.

And Iraq hangs in the balance, because the Sadr movement, if there are free and fair elections, could well sweep to power in Baghdad province and in much of the Shiite south.

Political jockeying

Matthew Sherman
Iran is backing many horses right now and they're attempting to keep us off-balance. What's important to recognize is that Iran also has much to lose within Iraq, if it's destabilized politically and economically.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Istrabadi, how about what he just said that, that some of this may be for show, that it's a tactical move by the Mahdi army, purposely moving back in order to retain future power?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, the problem with much of the discourse in this country, if I may say so with respect, is that, again, I'll use the word, it occurs in the disjunctive. Is it this, or is it that? When, in fact, what's happening in Iraq is that it's a multiplicity of factors at play at the same time.

The Maliki government, in advance of elections, does want to assert greater control over the country. Any Iraqi government would. The military operations that it is engaging in now, you could not have conceived it doing one year ago.

As General Odierno just said in your earlier news report, it's about capacity. Capacity has clearly improved. It is not to the point that it needs to be, but it is clearly improved over six months ago, over a year ago.

There's political jockeying. There is all the things that Juan Cole talked about, all the things Mr. Sherman talked about. All of these things are occurring simultaneously. It is not a matter of the disjunctive.

I would say, at the end of the day, however, we are moving for a change in the right direction, where our government in Baghdad, regardless of whether it's on the political or on the military front, is able to be more assertive than it was. That's a change in a positive direction.

RAY SUAREZ: Before we go, let's talk briefly about Iran and its involvement in Iraq. American officials, both in uniform and in business suits, Professor Istrabadi, have been saying that the Iranians have been arming and training militiamen. Can they do that and support the government at the same time?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I think that they are, in fact, doing that. I think that it would be naive to think that they're not.

One of the strategies of the Iranians in Iraq, I think, is to keep the pot boiling, to keep the United States occupied in Iraq. And it certainly would not be the first time in history that a regional power with some aspirations of being a leading regional power supported more than one side in a conflict.

You know, look, during the First World War, even the British supported the Hashemite rebellion against the Turks, but also supported the house of Saud in their rebellion against the Hashemites.

So these things happen. And I think we would be naive to think that Iran is unable or unwilling to engage in those kind of tactics. And Iran may not be the only one of Iraq's neighbors that is engaging in these tactics.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Matt Sherman, quickly?

MATTHEW SHERMAN: I agree that Iran is backing many horses right now and they're attempting to keep us off-balance. What's important to recognize is that Iran also has much to lose within Iraq, if it's destabilized politically and economically. And so they have a vested interest in keeping Iraq stable, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you all.