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Don't Look Up: Moqtada's Latest Threat

Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

It looks like Moqtada al-Sadr, or one of his proxies, is threatening to call off his ceasefire again. Normally I don't pay much attention to this regularly recurring story. But this time it reminded me of this recent AP report about a Sunni Awakening Council that had protested an alleged strafing incident by halting its cooperation with the American military. Neither story alone seems very significant, and together they still don't add up to much. But they triggered a line of thought that goes something like this:

We've reached a point in Iraq where everyone has accepted the limits of what they can accomplish by force. More importantly, everyone on the Iraqi side realizes that they can't defeat their sectarian rivals or the US military. And the US realizes that while the Surge has made a difference, specifically with regard to the most heinous bombing attacks, it's largely a result of various Iraqi factions standing down that the security situation has improved so dramatically.

But no one is doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. They all want something in return. The US wanted decreased sectarian violence because it was the only way to maintain the legitimacy of a continued military presence, and by and large the Iraqi factions that have chosen to cooperate with us have delivered.

But what about Moqtada? What does he want? What is it he's trying to trade his continued cooperation for? According to the Guardian article cited above, he just wants someone to stop the Badr Brigades that have infiltrated the Iraqi security apparatus from targeting his guys. Now the question is, who in Iraq at the moment can deliver that concession? And who can deliver whatever it is the Sunnis cooperating in the Awakening Councils ultimately want?

It seems like a stretch to argue that the US can, and that strikes a pretty powerful blow to the logic of our continued presence there. Because it means that ultimately we're more indebted to the factions whose cooperation has furthered our tactical aims than they are to us. What's more, with very little effort they can make things very uncomfortable for us, as Moqtada hopes to demonstrate with his latest warning. Sure, he'll pay a price, but he's already paying a price, while getting little in return.

It's as if we're Damocles lying on the couch of the king, not yet aware of the sword hanging above our throat from the ceiling.

Cross-posted to Headline Junky.