In the Arena

The Petraeus Testimony

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I’ll be spending this week–until my Wednesday deadline–covering the Petraeus testimony for a print edition column. One of the key things to watch is if Petraeus reads Basra the same way as John McCain did today on Fox news:

It was al-Sadr that declared the ceasefire, not Maliki,” said McCain. “With respect, I don’t think Sadr would have declared the ceasefire if he thought he was winning. Most times in history, military engagements, the winning side doesn’t declare the ceasefire. The second point is, overall, the Iraqi military performed pretty well. … The military is functioning very effectively.”

This is a fundamental misreading of Sadr’s aim and of the situation. McCain seems to think that Sadr–who didn’t start the fight–has a military goal in the south. On the contrary, Sadr’s goal is political: he–or the political experts in the Sadrist movement–hope to do very well in the local elections next October. The Sadrist goal is to hold on to the neighborhoods they control, so their vote won’t be stolen (and so they can do unto Dawa and ISCI electorally in those neighborhoods that which theyDawa and ISCI want to do unto them).

The key for Senators and Congressmen is to press Crocker and Petraeus on this: Do they consider Sadr the enemy? Do they consider the pro-Iranian ISCI, and Badr Corps (formerly affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) our friends? Do we have a dog in this hunt? Also, do they agree with McCain on the efficacy of the Iraqi army?

I can’t emphasize this enough: the most important question now is whether we take the fateful step of injecting ourselves into the intra-Shi’ite fight. If we oppose Sadr, we are siding against arguably the most popular leader in Iraq–who is no friend of ours, to be sure, but also more independent of Iran than ISCI is. The bloodshed inherent in such a decision would be dreadful.

I suspect that there’s plenty bloodshed to come between the Sadr and Hakim factions, and between the Sunnis and Shi’ites…and perhaps between the Kurds and the Arabs (not to mention the Turks). The true nature of the actual government of Iraq–as opposed to the Maliki farce–will emerge from the result of those contests. If we and the Iraqis are lucky, the result will be decided in the local elections next October and the national elections of 2009. We also shouldn’t kid ourselves: there won’t be a reliable Iraqi Army until there’s an reliable Iraqi government that commands the respect and affiliation of all sides.

That is something the Iraqis must, by definition, accomplish without us. The only way out of Iraq is to make it clear to all sides that we’re not going to “babysit a civil war” as Hillary Clinton says. This–not timetables or metrics for the training of Iraqi forces–is what we need to hear about from Petraeus and Crocker. They have been the most accomplished general and ambassador that we have sent into this mess. They are to be congratulated for the transformation of al-Anbar province into a peaceful place, the largely successful campaign against Al Qaeda in Iraq and the success in the suppression of violence in many Baghdad neighborhoods, through the use of Counterinsurgency tactics.

But now the Congress has to suss out whether Petraeus and Crocker are going to start getting us out of Iraq–or drag us deeper into the mess by taking sides in the Shi’ite civil war.