In the Arena

Today in Iraq

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Well, more details from Anbar via the NY Times today. This isn’t quite the shock it would seem, especially since General Odierno said last week that 12,000 Sunnis had joined the Iraqi military out in Anbar, and as we know, the Iraqi military and the Iraqi militias are first cousins, or closer.

But it is confusing from a strategic point of view. I can understand backing the local tribes in their efforts to kick out Al Qaeda in Iraq…but, given the widespread feeling that no Sunni-Shiite political deal is likely–as I reported in this column a few weeks ago–you have to wonder how arming the Sunnis fits into the endgame. Or if there is an endgame. (I suspect there isn’t, I suspect we’re grasping at straws–reinforcing tactical success without thinking through the strategic consequences.)

All things considered, it’s definitely an excellent thing that the Sunnis have gotten sick of AQI. And AQI’s recent reaction to this new conflict–i.e. bombing the Sunni tribal leadership in Falluja–is probably speeding the foreign fighters’ exit.

But then what? To me, the most interesting questions have to do with who will emerge as the leaders of the Sunni and Shiite factions. In which regard, Juan Cole has a fascinating tidbit:

Sawt al-Iraq reports in Arabic that Muqtada [al-Sadr] also met late Sunday with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The two discussed a wide range of political and religious issues. The meeting was said to be intended by Sistani to “reassure” al-Sadr with regard to Sistani. The two have in the past sometimes had bad relations. I’d say that Sistani- al-Sadr cooperation would be just about Bush’s worst nightmare in Iraq.

[Italics Mine]

On the other hand, Sadr has two things going for him as a prospective Iraqi strongman:
1. About 30% of his militia, the Mahdi Army, is composed of former Shiite officers in Saddam Hussein’s army, according to U.S. intelligence sources. Many of these former Ba”athists have connections with the Baathist factions of the Sunni insurgency…which could, perversely, argue for the possibility of some serious Sunni-Shiite military negotiations after we leave.
2. Of the various Shi’ite factions, the Sadr family has had the worst long-term relations with Iran. (Although he’s been happy to get major funding from Iran the past few years.)

The prospect of a Sadr regency causes most American officials to blanch–and no wonder: there’s a strong possibility that he’d be a milder, Shiite version of Saddam. He’d certainly be no friend of ours. But I wonder if it’s time to start thinking the unthinkable.

And Thanks reader PVA for this link: