- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

“More troops” isn’t the most significant aspect of the military “surge” in Iraq. Since at least fall 2003, an increase of 5,000 to 10,000 troops over a three-month window has been an option for coalition forces.

For example, deploying a “ready brigade” from the 82nd Airborne Division would quickly bump troop strength in the region by around 4,000 soldiers. On several occasions (spring 2004, for example), commanders have accelerated planned reinforcements and delayed pending unit withdrawals.

Adding 20,000 troops to Iraq in a five- to six-month window is a significant increase but in and of itself not decisive, and certainly not a “new strategy.”

The relentless, focused targeting of Shia and Sunni extremist organizations is a far more important feature of what Iraqis are calling “the new security plan” than more U.S. troops. The coalition’s effort to better integrate the economic and political development “lines of operation” with security operations could have greater long-term effects.

Attacks on Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army have been the most public examples of “focused targeting.” Though Sheik al-Sadr’s allies deny it, Iraqi and U.S. government spokesmen still claim the sheik has left Iraq for Iran. Sheik al-Sadr bolted because the new offensive is indeed striking his militia.

In 2004, Iraqi Shia leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, told coalition commanders that Sheik al-Sadr should be dealt with politically — and by Iraqis. The Ayatollah al-Sistani’s preferred method was to either absorb Sheik al-Sadr into the emerging democratic system or slowly marginalize him. Either way, Iraqis would defang Sheik al-Sadr without making him a “martyr.”

The “preferred method” produced mixed results. Sheik al-Sadr was certainly not absorbed, nor was he thrust to the political margins. Sheik al-Sadr’s personal influence has clearly diminished, however. In the meantime, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — a Shia — has become Iraq’s leading political figure. Moreover, Mr. al-Maliki enjoys the Ayatollah al-Sistani’s support and Sheik al-Sadr’s disdain.

Mr. al-Maliki understands the United States will no longer wait for Sheik al-Sadr’s dissipation. The Hollywood marquee would read “Maliki or Muqtada” — a facile headline, but one containing a gram of truth. As coalition and Iraqi forces crack down on the Mahdi Army, Mr. al-Maliki is getting a few welcome political breaks, which may be the pleasant residue of “the preferred method.”

Sheik al-Sadr’s “Iran trip” may have been a practical necessity, but it was not politically astute. It reinforces Iraqi contentions that Sheik al-Sadr’s organization acts on behalf of Iran and that Sheik al-Sadr, rather than being the voice of the disenfranchised, is a mouthpiece.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the new security plan is the increased aggressiveness of the Iraqi Army as it conducts counterinsurgent operations. The Iraqi military defeat of the cultist “Soldiers of Heaven” planned attack on Najaf in late January provides a dramatic example. With coalition backup, Iraqi forces launched a spoiling attack and killed or captured several hundred militants.

Mr. al-Maliki’s national reconciliation program remains the key Iraqi political endeavor. That program began well before “the new security plan,” but no security plan will succeed without reconciliation.

The Office of National Reconciliation conducts “engagements” with the entire spectrum of ethnic, religious and political groups. Last week, in a phone interview with journalists and commentators, coalition spokesman U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell discussed how his Strategic Effects Office works with the Iraqi government on this issue. “In the last three months on any given day of week we’re doing [numerous reconciliation] engagements,” Gen. Caldwell said. His office has helped coordinate the meetings. Gen. Caldwell said that the reconciliation office had also been “talking to insurgent groups.”

That makes sense. al-Mr. Maliki’s “new security plan” includes a reformed “de-Ba’athification” program designed to permit former members of the Ba’ath Party, on an individual basis, to integrate into the new, democratic Iraq.

Former Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi advocated a similar program in 2004, but Mr. Allawi’s government was appointed, not elected. Saddam Hussein was also still alive. Mr. al-Maliki is an elected prime minister, and his government carried out Saddam’s court-ordered death sentence. Mr. al-Maliki has the political capital to implement the program.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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