Well today, the NYT is reporting that Al Sadr has issued some conditions for a new truce.
The Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr on Sunday took a step toward ending six days of intense combat between his militia allies and Iraqi and American forces in Basra and Baghdad, saying in a statement that his followers would lay down their arms providing the Iraqi government met a series of demands.
Interesting wording here, especially when you consider the NYT owns the IHT, and the IHT is offering a different wording (which they credit to Reuters and the AP):
The Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr said Sunday that he was pulling his fighters off the streets of Iraq and called on the government to stop raids against his followers and to free those it had arrested.
"Because of religious responsibility and to stop Iraqi blood being shed," Sadr said in a nine-point statement given to journalists in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, "we call for an end to armed appearances in Basra and all other provinces."
This all comes as an interesting twist.
Last week we were hearing President Bush saying things like this was a "defining moment" in Iraqi history, which is precisely why this report of a new truce is makes it even more puzzling. The way things were sounding, the Iraqis (with whatever assistance we needed to provide) were taking charge of the lion's share of their own security. On the surface, it appeared that the final push was on to eliminate all measurable enemies of the new Iraqi state.
Trying to make sense of this is even more difficult, if a person doesn't know the backdrop to this.
From Time Magazine comes this article.
For much of the past three years, the Iraqi government has had little influence over Basra. As British troops have steadily withdrawn from the city, it has fallen into the control of three major Shi'ite militias — Moqtada al'Sadr's Mahdi Army, the Iran-backed Badr Brigades and a local group associated with the Fadila Party. The three have recently fought turf battles over large swaths of the city, claiming hundreds of lives.
As the article goes on to say, there are still about 4,000 (or so) British forces stationed outside of Basra that have not been fully engaged in this operation. In fact, the implication here is, as British troops draw down, struggles between these three groups are beginning to form. Basra police have been unable to handle this form of urban gang warfare, because they were not adequately trained, nor were they appropriately armed to take on these better trained and armed gangs of thugs.
So by the orders of the Iraqi PM, enter the Iraqi forces to make some headway into this. It had been reported to be a little more difficult than first thought. No doubt some were thinking that it would fail, with others undoubtedly thinking it wouldn't. Who you believe would depend on which view you already subscribe to, the "we cannot win this war" crowd or the ones that believe we can.
With the Sunni supported insurgency and Al Qaida severely crippled in Iraq, it is now important that those in the Shiite factions be disarmed, if Iraq is to have a chance to survive after any form of U.S. withdrawal. But as of this writing, this still hasn't happened.
But what happened? Why has Al Sadr seemingly reversed course, when late last week he seemed so sure he could fight back this response from the government?
The Long War Journal may provide some understanding, in this article.
With the fifth day of fighting in Baghdad, Basrah and the South completed, the Mahdi Army has suffered major losses over the past 36 hours. The Mahdi Army has not fared well over the past five days of fighting, losing an estimated two percent of its combat power, using the best case estimate for the size of the militia.
A look at the open source press reports from the US and Iraqi military and the established newspapers indicates 145 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 81 were wounded, 98 were captured, and 30 surrendered during the past 36 hours.
Since the fighting began on Tuesday 358 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 531 were wounded, 343 were captured, and 30 surrendered. The US and Iraqi security forces have killed 125 Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad alone, while Iraqi security forces have killed 140 Mahdi fighters in Basra.
While the size of the Mahdi Army is a constant source of debate, media accounts often put the Mahdi Army at anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 fighters. With an estimated 1,000 Mahdi fighters killed, captured, wounded and surrendered, the Mahdi Army has taken an attrition rate of 1.5 to 2.5 percent over the past five days.
I think Al Sadr has seen the writing on the wall. He has come to the conclusion that his resistance will not succeed at this point in time, especially when there are rival groups competing for the same disaffected Shiites, with the same stated objectives. If he is to ever wield any influence or power in the new Iraq, he cannot afford to engage the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces at this time. If he does, he could lose a lot more of his followers, rendering him virtually impotent in bargaining chips.
So, what's he do? Why, he does what every great Middle Eastern wannabe does when this happens. He calls for a truce or cease-fire so he can re-arm, readjust, and rethink his strategy. And like a fool, Maliki lets him off of the hook (just like we did, when we had him holed up in a mosque with a significant lesser following).
Some lessons to learn from this are:
1. Withdrawal before Iraq is able to sustain their own security, will guarantee the same reaction nationwide, as what has occurred in Basra after the British turned it over. just think of what is happening in Basra, as a microcosm of the entire nation, if we withdraw our forces prematurely.
2. Making deals with Al Sadr are only temporary, he cannot be trusted to fulfill long term agreements. He is young and has time to wait things out. Leaving his militia alone will only serve as a temporary solution. Either fight them now, or fight them later. But understand that they will need to be fought, if Iraq is to ever be stabilized enough to withdraw the vast majority of U.S forces.
3. Electing Obama or Hillary will screw things up worse than it is now, if they make good on their claim to begin immediate withdrawals after taking office. In effect, Iraq will be turned over to Iran and the proxy groups that are already doing their dirty work, groups like the Mahdi Army.