This is an excellent piece in the Times today about the Mahdi Army. And, if you’ll indulge me a bit, it demonstrates the mind-cracking complexity of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Muqtada Sadr is the most popular Shi’ite politician in Iraq, mostly on the strength of his father’s reputation. His militia, the Mahdi Army, is likely the most powerful in the country–but, like almost every other institution in Iraq, “Mahdi Army” is a broad umbrella term that is used by all sorts of people, some controlled by Sadr, some not. There are the criminal gangs described in Tavernese’s piece, the are the “Special Groups,” which are Iranian-supported terrorist cells, there are Shi’ites who are former Baathist elements of Saddam’s army (including some of the Fedayeen Saddam, who caused problems for the U.S. military in the first days of the war) and there standard-issue militia who police neighborhoods like Sadr City in Baghdad and various parts of the south.
It has been a real challenge for U.S. intelligence to unbraid these various strands and make an accurate assessment of how much power Sadr actually has, how coherent a movement he leads. But there is a bit a good news here:
Like many Shiites, Abbas, the car parts dealer, attributes part of the drop-off [in crime] to a new precision in American arrests, fed by tips from Shiite residents… American commanders like Lt. Col. David Oclander, of the Second Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, whose area includes Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, have seized on that cooperation. In the past month and a half, he said, Shiite leaders have begun to make contact with the Americans. The brigade is now working with 25 sheiks in the Shiite neighborhoods of Shaab and Ur and is interviewing up to 1,200 candidates for semiofficial neighborhood guard positions.
This is what happens when classic counter-insurgency tactics are working. It is a lesson that can be applied in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the future. But to keep things in context: There are too few American troops, too few reliable Iraqi troops, too much bad blood, too many militias, too many ethnic factions, and no controlling legal authority–tip of the hat to Nobelist Al Gore!–to make this work on a national level in Iraq.