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Sadr City: Not a U.S. Problem

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SOURCE: AP/Karim Kadim

Men clean up a barber shop as stores reopen in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad following a ceasefire between Sadrists and the Maliki government.

Make no mistake, there will continue to be bloodshed in Iraqi streets until Iraq’s leaders decide otherwise—even though various Iraqi leaders have signaled a truce in the ongoing battle for control of Sadr City in downtown Baghdad. And that won’t happen until the United States signals a date certain for the redeployment of U.S. forces out of the country.

No matter whether the United States exercises what President Bush and U.S. Army General David Petraeus call “strategic patience”—an indefinite commitment of 140,000 U.S. troops—or begins a reduction and redeployment of U.S. forces, the lasting political accommodations necessary to produce a stable and democratic Iraq will not occur until the United States issues a definitive timeline for troop reduction. Only then will Iraq’s leaders work to find political solutions to the country’s instability.

The ongoing fighting in Baghdad and across southern Iraq proves the point. The vicious intra-sectarian power struggle ahead of provincial elections now scheduled for October pits Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Iraq Security Forces (with heavy support from U.S. forces) and the Iranian-backed Shiite political party the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq against their main political rival, Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army. Sadr, an outspoken critic of the U.S. military occupation and a fervent nationalist, enjoys the support of millions of poor and disenfranchised Iraqi Shiites who are poised to mobilize in support of their leader in the coming elections.

Prime Minister Maliki’s politically motivated use of Iraqi Security Forces to cripple Sadr undermines both Iraq’s precarious democracy and delicate security environment. Sadr is a real stakeholder in Iraqi politics. The Sadrists hold 10 percent of parliamentary seats and have expectations to win offices in upcoming provincial elections. U.S. military support to aid Maliki’s extension of state power in order to derail his political opponents highlights the incoherent strategy the United States is pursuing in Iraq. It also undermines legitimate efforts by members of the Iraqi government and Iraqi Security Forces to eliminate criminal elements and gangs, some of whom—to the dismay of Sadr—are operating under the Mahdi Army banner.

Our current strategy in Iraq runs counter to the overarching U.S. goal of achieving reconciliation among Iraq’s disparate political factions. The large U.S. military presence fosters a culture of dependency on the part of the Iraqi central government. As long as Maliki can rely on the U.S. military to back his use of state power to target political rivals, U.S. troops will be mired in Iraq’s violent political infighting.

The United States, however, now has a golden opportunity to reverse course. Intra-sectarian fighting in Baghdad’s Sadr City continues in the wake of a nascent ceasefire between the Sadrists and the Maliki government. A major political test for sustaining some modicum of a ceasefire will be if Iraqi lawmakers decide to pursue a ban on political parties with ties to militias from participating in the new elections.

The ban, spawned from unusual cooperation between Shi’a and Sunni lawmakers in parliament (Sadrists not included), would marginalize popularly supported political rivals. These would include the Sadrists as well as the Sunni dominated “Sons of Iraq,” who are paid $27 million a month by the United States to keep the peace and fight Al Qaeda in Iraq. Both factions must participate in the political process in October if there is going to be any chance of ending the bloodshed.

Ironically, one militia that would not be banned is the Iranian supported Badr Brigade, the military arm of Maliki’s chief political ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Many Badr fighters are already integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces. In fact, hundreds more were hastily integrated into Iraq’s national army to avert an embarrassing defeat in Basra by the Mahdi Army.

The United States must take a stand by stating unequivocally that it will not provide military support to the Iraqi Security Forces if the tenuous ceasefire collapses as a result of Maliki using the opportunity to go after criminal elements and target Sadr’s forces. The United States must also cease the construction of the massive 15 foot tall concrete barriers in the southern parts of Sadr City, isolating portions of its residents from the rest of Baghdad. This cordoning off of certain sections of Sadr City, while providing a buffer against rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone, restricts the movement of residents not involved in the fighting, making it difficult for them to receive basic goods and essential services. The walls serve to further isolate Sadr and his supporters from the political process, further complicating an already volatile situation.

These steps would encourage dialogue, provide incentive for political solutions to take root, and reinforce efforts toward reconciliation and power sharing. With mortar and rocket attacks lowered, the Iraqi parliament might then be able to compromise on the proposed ban on militias participating in the upcoming elections.

The United States must begin to sizably redeploy its forces from Iraq. At the same time, it should affirm its commitment to Iraq’s democracy, its people, and its institutions by objecting to Maliki’s use of his country’s armed forces as a domestic political tool. Steady redeployment of our forces is also in the interest of overall U.S. national security. A large U.S. military presence in Iraq is fiscally unsustainable—$600 billion and counting—and is carrying the all-volunteer Army to the breaking point. The increasing costs to U.S. taxpayers of the endless occupation means that we are spending resources that could be used for rebuilding the Gulf coast, improving our declining infrastructure, rebuilding our devastated ground forces, and modernizing our Navy and Air Force.

An overstretched U.S. military also means the United States is unable to respond to contingencies elsewhere in the world, such as rooting out terrorists and extremists in Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan, where they pose the greatest threat. The current U.S. strategy of a large indefinite commitment of troops to Iraq has accurately been called “strategic confusion.” More and more, however, it appears like a “strategic illusion,” threatening the long-term security for both Iraqis and Americans.

Ian Moss is a National Security researcher at the Center for American Progress, working with Senior Fellows Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis. He is a former cryptologic linguist in the U.S. Marines.

To learn more about the Center’s policy solutions to the Iraq War and terrorist threats, please see our National Security webpage.

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