Sunday, April 9, 2006

This much should be clear to sober-minded Iraqis and Americans who are serious about helping them rebuild their country: It will be impossible for U.S. and Coalition forces to achieve victory in Iraq without dealing a decisive blow to the militias, terrorists and other armed groups that have come on the scene since the toppling of Saddam Hussein three years ago. And, given the challenges involved in building credible Iraqi military and police forces, U.S. troops will for the forseeable future remain essential to defeating the Islamofascists who are intent on destroying Iraq. While progress is being made toward building Iraqi forces that can do the job, there is still a long way to go before Iraqis can defend their country without significant American military support. It is reckless and irresponsible for U.S. politicians to suggest that substantial numbers of American troops can be “redeployed” (withdrawn from Iraq) in the next year or two without dealing catastrophic blows to the cause of Iraqi freedom and the American war effort.

The best known of the terrorist groups is al Qaeda in Iraq, the shadowy Sunni Muslim organization headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi that is thought to be behind many if not most of the bombings, beheadings, kidnappings and attacks on Shi’ite mosques. But in recent months, Shi’ite terrorists have become increasingly brazen about retaliating in kind against Sunni civilians. The most prominent of the Shi’ite militias are the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Mahdi Army, commanded by Moqtada al-Sadr. Both organizations have a long history of support from and coordination with Iran.

Although Zarqawi is open about the fact that he personally loathes Shi’ites, this did not stop him from taking refuge in Iran after the U.S. military ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. Nor did it prevent Sheik al-Sadr from making common cause with Zarqawi when it suited the Mahdi Army’s purposes. For example, in April 2004, when Zarqawi’s forces attacked Coalition troops in the Sunni Triangle region, Sheik al-Sadr brazenly took advantage of the situation by staging his own attacks on Coalition forces in Baghdad and the Shi’ite south. Four months later, his forces triggered another round of bloody fighting with U.S. troops, this time taking refuge in Najaf and using the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites in Shi’ite Islam, to shield themselves from attack by U.S./Coalition forces.

According to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, the Mahdi Army is behind a series of recent killings carried out after the Feb. 22 attack on the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, a Shi’ite holy site. A favored tactic of Sheik al-Sadr has been to alternate calls for calm with atrocity charges against the American military. Most recently, on March 26, members of his organization charged that U.S. and Iraqi forces were responsible for massacring at least 16 followers of Sheik al-Sadr at a Baghdad mosque. The U.S. military says that A) the raid did not occur at a mosque, and B) U.S. forces were fired on while searching for members of a terrorist cell that carried out attacks against civilians and soldiers.

Like the Mahdi Army, SCIRI has played a negative role. In November, U.S. military forces raided a detention center in Baghdad run by the Iraqi Interior Ministry (headed by a member of SCIRI) where they found more than 160 malnourished prisoners, most of them Sunni. Some bore signs of torture. Since that time, more allegations of atrocities against Iraqi Sunnis by Interior Ministry operatives have surfaced.

The militias’ role is particularly pernicious in Baghdad, where different ones control different sectors of the city, which become veritable no-go zones for Iraqis of the “wrong” sectarian background. The bottom line is that, while substantial progress has been made toward helping Iraqis govern their country and defend themselves, more has to be done, and this cannot occur without a large continuing American role in helping train Iraqi security forces to defend their nation; in this context, talking about substantial troop withdrawals bears little resemblance to reality on the ground.

Yet, in one form or another, that is what we have been hearing for months from prominent Democrats such as Sens. John Kerry, Joseph Biden, Carl Levin and others. Lately the Bush administration has responded to this by suggesting that pullbacks could come soon; it buttresses its case with statistics, often open to differing interpretations, suggesting it has had success in training Iraqi security forces. The administration would be better served by explaining the larger picture to the American people: that a win in Iraq is essential to winning the larger war against Islamofascists who want to kill us; and that we would betray the Iraqi people and do immeasurable damage to our own long-term security interests by signalling to our enemies, like the sectarian gangsters in Baghdad today, that they only need to hunker down and wait for us to leave.

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