Play Ball… Or Else

Captain Ed notes that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is backing away from the Mahdi Army. One of the more frequent criticisms of the current plan I’ve heard is that the al-Maliki government can’t be trusted. Certainly al-Maliki has been in bed with the Sadrists in the past — when the US wanted to go into Sadr City, al-Maliki refused. It seems clear that such incidents won’t be happening again.

My guess is that President Bush made it very clear to al-Maliki that the price of staying in bed with Moqtada al-Sadr would be a high one — if the Iraqi government dissolves, al-Maliki has a good chance of having his head end up on an al-Qaeda pike. It’s in al-Maliki’s interest to make sure his fragile government doesn’t dissolve — and staying with the Sadrists and their Iranian-backed thugs will guarantee that the US leaves and Iraq falls apart. Would the Iranians protect him when it hit the wall? My guess is that he knows that they won’t.

So long as it’s in his interest to play ball, he will. Al-Maliki may be a sectarian, but he’s no fool. We don’t need him to be a great leader, we just need him to act in his own self-interest.

It’s also interesting that it appears that Kurds will be taking responsibility for Baghdad. The Kurdish peshmerga are some of the best-trained fighters in Iraq. The Shi’ites are likely to accept them since both Kurds and Shi’ites suffered greatly under Saddam. The Sunnis may be more problematic, but Kurds are Sunni Muslims, and the Kurds will be better at protecting Sunnis than the Shi’ite Interior Ministry troops who tend to be part of the militias.

There’s a lot that could go wrong in this plan, but it does represent a fairly substantial shift in strategy. One of the biggest problem will be logistics — it takes regular shipments of food and supplies to keep an army going, and that requires Americans to drive through IED-infested roads. That’s where it seems like the majority of American casualties have come from — not in engaging the enemy, but just getting from point A to point B.

We have to do what we can to secure Baghdad — and while President Bush is late to the party on key issues such as an oil trust and giving the troops more authority, at least we’re doing them. The idea that Iraq is beyond saving doesn’t fly with me — if Iraq were in a civil war, the death toll would be catastrophic. Only a minority of the Iraqi population is engaged in the fighting or want there to be a fight — a few thousand heavily-armed thugs can destroy enough on their own. If Iraq were unsalvageable, the situation would be even worse than it is now.

The next few weeks are crucial. We have to restore order in Baghdad — and if we fail in that task, it won’t be a failure for just President Bush, it will be a failure for the entire world.

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