- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

The formation of Iraq’s new government and the elimination of terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi have failed to produce the hoped-for decrease in violence in Baghdad, as officials try to deal with increasingly deadly Shi’ite militias and al Qaeda-backed Sunni Muslims.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki completed his Cabinet last month by naming defense and interior ministers and then ordered a street-by-street crackdown on insurgents and private armies.

But a top U.S. commander said last week that the number of attacks in Greater Baghdad are up, not down, and heavy street fighting raged last night for a fifth straight day.

Moreover, U.S. leaders are not sure how to handle the Mahdi Army — the private militia of firebrand Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that roams Baghdad in assassination squads.

Adding fuel to the rage are reports of American soldiers and Marines accused of murder in four separate incidents since March, resulting in Mr. al-Maliki’s criticism of the Bush administration.

Mr. al-Makiki’s team moved yesterday to reposition security troops to concentrate on Sunni neighborhoods where much of the violence has raged, but some Iraqi police units have performed so badly that they will need to be retrained, U.S. military officers said.

“I think everybody had the thought that perhaps it might be improving more than it is at this point,” Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, chief U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst, said the strategy of al Qaeda in Iraq, for now, is working: Blow up Shi’ite mosques and markets, provoking reprisals from the Mahdi Army and other militias, which then spur attacks by Iraq’s Sunni insurgents.

“It is a concern,” Gen. McInerney said. “We’re going to have to see what Maliki does to get a handle on it. There is a surge of a lot of Sunni-Shi’ite violence. … They are certainly making an all-out fight for Iraq as we transfer more territory to the Iraqis.”

He added, “Maliki is going to have to get rid of the Mahdi Army. This is going to be a test of what he can do. That will not be solved by us.”

The violent situation is complex.

On the surface, the Mahdi militia is attacking Sunnis as retribution for al Qaeda bombings. But the Mahdi also wants the United States out of Iraq and opposes the moderate message of Shi’ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, a rival to Sheik al-Sadr’s fiery brand of Islam.

“They’re trying to embarrass the new government,” Gen. McInerney said.

The U.S. command is treating the Mahdi Army gingerly after two attacks on the militia in 2004. A third assault could further alienate the Shi’ite population and hinder national reconciliation efforts.

Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, speaks of the problem of “illegal armed groups,” but refrains from identifying them. Defense sources told The Washington Times that Gen. Casey considers the Mahdi militia one of those groups and thinks Sheik al-Sadr has lost control of some deadly factions.

“We’re not targeting any individual organization,” Gen. Caldwell said yesterday. “What we’re … truly trying to ascertain is: Are there people out there operating outside the law? And if there is, then we’re going to get them.”

Pressed to single out the Mahdi Army, he said, “We’re not identifying any particular organization at this point.”

Gen. Caldwell announced no great accomplishments as the Baghdad crackdown involving 50,000 security forces — 42,000 Iraqi and 8,000 American — approached the 30-day point.

“It’s going to take time,” he said.

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