Watching Ambassador Crocker’s and General Petraeus’s testimony today I heard nothing that would surprise Iraq’s leaders. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh found the assessment fair although he sees more room for optimism now than has done for several years. Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s crackdown on the Mehdi militia of Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr is a point in case for Saleh. He told me this evening by taking on his own Shia constituency the Prime Minister has taken a big step toward garnering more support from Sunnis and Kurds, increasing the possibility of political compromise and advancing the country on a unified nationalist agenda.
Under pressure, General Petraeus did criticize Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s planning and execution of his security crack down in the port city of Basra two weeks ago. But based on my conversations with the Prime Minister, it’ll be no surprise for him to hear it characterized that way. He told me was surprised “with the counter attack by the Mehdi Army” when he sent government forces into the city. Equally I suspect the Prime Minister won’t have been surprised to hear General Petraeus' plans to evaluate whether to draw troops down to pre-surge levels on the basis of Iraqi forces' readiness and political and economic conditions. When I talked to Maliki about U.S. troop drawdown he told me, “I don't believe the decision for a drawdown should be paused,” although he added the caveat, so long as Iraqi security forces continue to improve. Broadly speaking, that does put him in agreement with Petraeus and Crocker.
Even as we listen to the testimony in Washington, we are watching Baghdad, where violence has the potential to upstage these debates. The person we are keeping an eye on most closely is al Sadr, who took a step back from direct confrontation with Maliki by postponing a million man march planned for Wednesday in Baghdad. At the same time, however, he threatened to end a ceasefire between his Mehdi Militia and U.S. and Iraqi government troops. Sadr seems to be playing a canny game. Faced with waning popular support he is casting himself as the savior of the Iraqi people and will likely try to leverage growing anger and frustration in his stronghold Sadr City where US and Iraqi troops fight bloody street battles with his militia. It may sound counterintuitive, but Sadr is blaming the government for the violence, claiming Iraqi troops are merely acting under American pressure, an argument that will increasingly resonate with his supporters as deprivation due to fighting grows.
Forty-eight people have been killed and 176 wounded in Sadr city in the past three days, according to Iraq’s Interior Ministry and many people have been fleeing the fighting. Food prices climbing and the government struggling in the face of militia attacks to deliver substantial humanitarian aid. Once the spotlight shifts back from Washington, Iraq’s Prime Minister will be in the hot seat again.
– Nic Robertson, Senior International Correspondent
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