By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
The troops deploying to Baghdad are tasked with suppressing the escalating sectarian violence in ethnically mixed areas of the city. Ever since the destruction of a Shia holy site in Samarra by forces of now-dead al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, there has been an ethnic cleansing campaign against Sunnis in neighborhoods previously home to both Sunnis and Shiites. The violence has been especially bad on the east bank of the Tigris River, an area rapidly becoming almost exclusively Shia. With the additional U.S. forces and the new directions from the recently appointed American commander Gen. Dave Petraeus, these troops will remain in the neighborhoods after they have cleared them, rather than returning to their garrisons. In the past, soon after neighborhoods or cities were cleared and American forces departed, the insurgents or militias returned and reclaimed the territory.
The mission does not include entering Sadr City, home to two million Shia and stronghold of the militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, thus they will treat the symptom, not the disease. The disease, if you will, is the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr and its death squads; the symptom is the continuing sectarian violence in the mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad. Clearing and holding Sadr City would eliminate the disease, causing the symptoms to disappear.
That said, things might be changing, and none too soon. The recent arrest of senior al-Sadr aide Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji indicates a willingness of the American command to confront the al-Sadr militia. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has promised that he will move against all militias in Iraq. It is not a coincidence that al-Sadr just now announced that his organization (he controls 30 seats in the national assembly) is terminating its boycott of participation in the Iraqi government called after al-Maliki’s meeting with President Bush in Jordan last November. Al-Sadr’s recent instructions for his militia to maintain a lower profile also indicate his concern that he cannot continue to defy the Iraqi government.
However, the violence will continue until the al-Sadr militia is disbanded or destroyed, and as long as Sadr City remains outside the control of American and Iraqi troops.