- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

The week’s news from Iraq:

According to the state television network, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was wounded in a clash with security forces just north of Baghdad. A senior deputy was killed.

Meanwhile, the punk cleric Sheikh Moqtada al-Sadr has decided discretion is the better part of mullahs and has temporarily relocated to Iran. That’s right: the biggest troublemaker in Iraq is no longer in Iraq.

It may be that his Persian vacation is only to marry a cousin or two and consult with the A-list ayatollahs, but the Mookster has always had highly sensitive antennae when it comes to his own physical security — he likes being the guy who urges martyrdom on others rather than being just another schmuck who takes one for the team. So the fact that urgent business requires him to be out of town for the Big Surge is revealing at the very least of how American objectives in Iraq are not at the mercy of forces beyond their control; U.S. military and political muscle can shape conditions on the ground —if they can demonstrate they’re serious about doing so.

Which these days is a pretty big “if.” Reporting the sudden relocation, the New York Times decided — in nothing flat — that it was yet another disastrous setback. In Iraq, no news is good news, and Sadr news is badder news:

“With the new American offensive in Baghdad still in its early days, American commanders have focused operations in the eastern part of the city, a predominantly Shiite area that has long been the Mahdi Army’s power base.

“If Mr. Sadr had indeed fled, his absence would create a vacuum that could allow even more radical elements of the Shi’ite group to take power.”

As my National Review colleague Rich Lowry marveled: “So now we need to keep Sadr in Iraq because he’s such a stabilizing influence.” Of course. As Hillaire Belloc wrote, “Always keep a hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse” — and, even when Nurse Sadr is blowing up the kids in the nursery every day, it’s best to cling to her blood-drenched apron strings because the next nurse will be an even bigger psycho. America is a big helpless baby who has blundered into a war zone he can never hope to understand.

According to a report by the New York Sun’s Eli Lake last month, Iran is supporting Shia insurgents in Iraq and Sunni insurgents in Iraq. In other words, it’s on both sides in the so-called “civil war.” How can this be? After all, as the other wise old foreign-policy “realists” of the Iraq Study Group assured us only in December, Iran has “an interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq.”

Au contraire, the ayatollahs have concluded they have a very clear interest in fomenting chaos in Iraq. They’re in favor of Sunni killing Shia, and Shia killing Sunni, and if some vacationing Basque terrorists wanted to blow up the Spanish Cultural Center in Mosul, they would be in favor of that, too.

The Iranians don’t care who kills whom as long as every night when Americans turn on the evening news there’s smoke over Baghdad. As I say in my book, if you happen to live in Ramadi or Basra, Iraq is about Iraq; if you live in Tehran, or Cairo, or Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang or Brussels, Iraq is about America. American will. American purpose. American credibility.

There was a TV station somewhere — was it Thunder Bay, Ontario? — that used to show a continuous loop of a roaring fireplace all night, and thousands of viewers would supposedly sit in front of it for hours because it was such a reassuringly comforting scene. The networks could save themselves a lot of money by adopting the same approach: Run a continuous loop of a smoking building in Baghdad all night while thousands of members of Congress and pundits and think-tankers and retired generals run around Washington shrieking that all is lost. America is way out of its league. A dimwitted tourist in a fearful land of strange people who don’t watch “American Idol.” Iraq is so culturally alien not a single Sunni, Shia or Kurd has come forward claiming to be the father of Anna Nicole’s baby.

Get a grip, chaps. In Iraq, everyone’s a tourist. This al Qaeda honcho, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, is an Egyptian. His predecessor, Zarqawi, was a Jordanian. Sheikh al-Sadr is a Persian stooge. For four decades, the country was a British client. Before that, it was a Turkish province.

The Middle East is a crazy place and a tough nut to crack, but the myth of the unbeatable Islamist insurgent is merely a lazy and more neurotic update of the myth of the unbeatable communist guerrilla, which delusion led to so much pre-emptive surrender in the 1970s. Nevertheless, in the capital city of the most powerful nation on the planet, the political class spent last week trying to craft a bipartisan defeat strategy, and they might yet pull it off. Consider this extraordinary report from The Washington Post:

“Democratic leaders have rallied around a strategy that would fully fund the president’s $100 billion request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but would limit his ability to use the money. … The plan is aimed at tamping down calls from the Democrats’ liberal wing for Congress to simply end funding for the war.

“The Murtha plan, based on existing military guidelines, includes a stipulation that Army troops who have already served in Iraq must be granted two years at home before an additional deployment. … The idea is to slowly choke off the war by stopping the deployment of troops from units that have been badly degraded by four years of combat.”

So “the Murtha plan” is to deny the president the possibility of victory while making sure Democrats don’t have to share the blame for the defeat. But of course he’s a great American. He’s a patriot. He supports the troops. He doesn’t support them in the mission, but he’d like them to continue failing at it for a couple more years. As John Kerry wondered during Vietnam, how do you ask a soldier to be the last man to die for a mistake? By nominally “fully funding” a war you don’t believe in but “limiting his ability to use the money.” Or as the endearingly honest antiwar group MoveCongress.org put it, in an e-mail preview of an exclusive interview with the wise old Mr. Murtha:

“Chairman Murtha will describe his strategy for not only limiting the deployment of troops to Iraq but undermining other aspects of the president’s foreign and national security policy.”

“Undermining”? Why not? To the Slow-Bleed Democrats, it’s the Republicans’ war. To an increasing number of what my radio pal Hugh Hewitt calls the White-Flag Republicans, it’s George W. Bush’s war. To everyone else on the planet, it’s America’s war. And it will be America’s defeat.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

Mark Steyn, 2005

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