In the Arena

Today in Iraq

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Karen’s right: The most significant news of the day is the LA Times report of the Pentagon’s desire to cut the troop levels in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 10. As I’ve been reporting for several months, there is real tension between the Pentagon and the Petraeus operation. Some of it is a genuine dispute about priorities: Petraeus wants to pursue his campaign plan and the generals in the Pentagon want to preserve their all-vounteer Army. But a good part of it is also jealousy, bureaucracy and standard Pentagon hugger-mugger–the generals, especially Casey, don’t like Petraeus’s Man-God reputation and tendency to make friends with the press.

The most important part of the dispute is what happens if we actually reduce from 20 to 10 combat brigades: We would have to leave Baghdad, which would, in effect, turn the city over to Muqtada al-Sadr. This would essentially confirm the likely reality: Sadr, or a designated Sadrist, will be the next leader of Iraq. The smartest path–which, by the way, is being discussed within the State Department, military and intelligence community (but not the White House, so far as I can tell)–is to try to figure out how to make a deal with the Sadrists. This would have to be done surreptitiously, since a good part of Sadr’s street reputation rests on the fact that he won’t deal with us infidels. And Sadr would have to do a few basic things, like disavow the “special groups” of the Mahdi Army–the Shi’ite equivalent of Al Qaeda in Iraq–that have been doing the assassinations down south and lobbing mortars into the Green Zone most nights. I’m not sure a deal can be done. But it may be the best worst case scenario.

As for John Warner’s support for the withdrawal of 5000 troops, well d’oh. They’re coming out anyway. The existing rotation schedule has the drawdowns beginning in March and April–the surge pig is moving out of the Multinational Force-Iraq python–and will have U.S. force levels down to 130,000 a year from now. I’ve long suspected that Bush will move up the schedule–announce that he’s pulling a brigade out of Anbar, perhaps as early as next month, in order to reinforce his message that we’re “winning” and will be “leaving” eventually. Warner’s play is another example of him giving the impression that he’s breaking with Bush, but not really doing it.