Sunday, November 05, 2006

'Power Shifts' in War-Ravaged Baghdad

On October 31, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. acquiesced to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demand that the U.S. military lift its blockade of Baghdad’s Sadr City, home to more than 2.5 million Iraqis – mostly poor Shiite Muslims – and some of some of Baghdad’s most notorious death squads. One of the reasons for the U.S. military’s action was to hunt for a missing U.S. soldier who is believed to have been captured by Abu Deraa, the leader of one of Baghdad’s most notorious death squads.

On Wednesday, November 1, I appeared on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer alongside Robert Grenier (a veteran CIA officer who served nearly a year as the CIA's top counter-terrorism official) to discuss this unfolding story. On the show, I emphasized the urgent need to put a stop to Baghdad’s sectarian death squads while also strengthening Iraqi sovereignty:
“[W]hat I think the prime minister has done is demonstrate once again that he's not ‘America's man in Baghdad’ and that he can exercise Iraqi sovereignty… [It’s] important for him to do that because that helps [to increase his] authority [and] ability to get things done. The question is: Will he then use that to get things done, particularly in reining in the death squads?”
Here’s the full transcript or streaming video of the segment. The Houston Chronicle, Reuters, CNN and the International Herald Tribune (via the AP wire) were some of the other Western news organizations that covered the ramifications of Prime Minister Maliki’s increasingly assertive exercise of Iraqi sovereignty.

According to AP:
“the armed death squads in Sadr City could increase their attacks against Sunnis across the capital, in the worst-case scenario. At a minimum, the action could send the wrong message to Sunnis…that their rivals in the Shiite militia can act with impunity and with political cover…”
Indeed, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi (a leading Sunni Arab political leader and the highest elected official of the Iraqi Islamic Party) has already threatened to resign over Prime Minister Maliki’s failure to confront Shiite militias. He predicted that the lifting of the U.S. military’s blockade on Sadr City would end a lull in sectarian death squad activity.

Did the U.S. military’s October 25 raid into Sadr City and subsequent week-long blockade reduce Baghdad’s body count, particularly in the first few days when militias operating out of Sadr City would have been the most disrupted? As the numbers are tabulated, that remains to be seen.

Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor provided an opinion piece on Maliki’s recent orders to U.S. troops. He writes:
“Shiite from the crowded Baghdad district of Sadr City are reveling in what they deem their ‘victory’ over American forces after Iraq PM Nuri al-Maliki…ordered the dismantling of U.S. and Iraqi checkpoints surrounding the area…” his was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to “further assert his independence…just days before U.S. midterm elections, in which the Iraq War has become a defining issue…”
According to Peterson, after a week of tensions between Washington and Baghdad, Maliki’s aides said they want to increase the unpopularity of Bush and the Iraq War ahead of U.S. elections “to expand Maliki’s authority…” However, Maliki owes his ascendance to Iraq's Premiership to Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls the largest voting bloc within the ruling Shia coalition. In fact, Muqtada may turn out to be the biggest winner of the past week, and that does not bode well for anyone in Baghdad.

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