Which Way Forward in Iraq?

Posted by Cutler on January 10, 2007
Iraq

The preview of the Iraq Policy Review seemed to indicate that the Bush administration was thinking of the new “Way Forward” in Iraq as consistent with efforts to woo Sunni political forces into government, even as the US tried to isolate Muqtada al-Sadr and crackdown on the Shiite militias of Sadr City.  Here is the preview from the Washington Post‘s Robin Wright:

The centerpiece of the political plan is the creation of a national reconciliation government that would bring together the two main Shiite parties with the two largest Kurdish parties and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials. The goal is to marginalize Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the largest and most powerful Shiite militia and head of a group that has 30 seats in parliament and five cabinet posts.

But it seems as though the “Way Forward” may actually mark more of a shift.  And that shift may have already begun.

I have in mind the operation, initiated by US forces, to take control of Haifa Street.  Here is the Washington Post report:

The fighting in the area began four days ago, when Iraqi soldiers killed 30 insurgents after uncovering what was described as an unauthorized checkpoint, according to a Defense Ministry spokesman. Pearson said Iraqi army commanders asked for U.S. assistance after insurgents killed several Iraqi soldiers two days ago.

At 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, about 400 U.S. troops from the Stryker Brigade rolled toward Haifa Street, meeting up with Iraqi army units along the way.

They arrived about 5:30 a.m. In the pre-dawn darkness, the joint forces took control of the buildings surrounding Tallil Square, a key target of the operation.

“We showed up in their living room for breakfast,” Pearson said. About 7 a.m., the trouble began. “As soon as the sun came up, the insurgents began shooting,” he said.

“We started taking it from all sides,” [Sgt. Israel] Schaeffer recalled.

From rooftops and doorways, the gunmen fired AK-47 assault rifles and machine guns. Snipers also were targeting the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. U.S. soldiers started firing back with 50-caliber machine guns mounted on their Stryker armored vehicles. They used TOW missiles and Mark-19 grenade launchers. The F-15 fighter jets strafed rooftops with cannons, while the Apaches fired Hellfire missiles. But the insurgents kept fighting.

“They were able to coordinate mortars at us. They were able to execute well-aimed shots from the cover of buildings,” said Capt. Robert Callaghan, who was coordinating air support for the operation. “There were mortar rounds that went off close to our vehicle. It was difficult to concentrate on my job.”

Schaeffer was surprised. He was accustomed to the hit-and-run tactics that the insurgents typically have used over the past few months.

“We fired a TOW missile into a building,” he said. “A few minutes later we started taking fire again from the building. Normally, that would have pretty much ended the whole engagement. They were fighting pretty persistently.”

“The terrain was in their favor,” he added. “It is about as defensible a terrain as you can get.”

Sounds like urban counter-insurgency.  In a Sunni neighborhood.

Are Sunni political leaders–especially the ones the Bush administration are supposedly courting–on board with the new “way forward”?

Not so much.

In a statement, the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party described the 50 killed as “innocent citizens.” It asserted that Sunnis on Haifa Street were “under siege” by Shiite militias backed by the Iraqi army.

The Iraqi Islamic Party.  Isn’t that the party–led by White House visitor and Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi that was supposed to form the Sunni backbone of the new “moderate” government the Bush administration was trying to promote to beat back Sadr?

Add, on top of that, the fact that the military brass is backing off from a confrontation with Sadr himself:

Odierno said U.S. forces would leave dealing with Sadr to Iraqi authorities. “I’m not sure we take him down,” he said.

“There are some extreme elements (of the Mehdi Army) … and we will go after them. I will allow the government to decide whether (Sadr) is part of it or not. He is currently working within the political system.”

What does it all add up to?

The Shiite Option after all?

Too early to tell.  Stay tuned.

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