By JOHN HALL
Media General News Service
August 31, 2006
It seems the Iraqi forces in the southeastern province of Maysan had refused to obey orders to go to Baghdad where they were needed. They apparently decided it would be safer in their home province than the unfamiliar ethnic and sectarian environment of the big city.
Since the British have such a delicious time reporting Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's renderings, it was interesting to see stuff happening to his counterpart for a change.
U.S. officials are reporting progress, too. They pronounced a bloody, 12-hour clash with Shiite militia insurgents in Diwaniyah, a city 100 miles south of Baghdad, as a hard-won victory by Iraqi police and troops, the Los Angeles Times reported. Army Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, briefing the Pentagon press, said, "The Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police together, as a force, repelled the insurgents. I think that's a good news story."
But some of the reports from the scene described it as less than good news.
Iraqi troops in Diwaniyah ran out of ammunition and were either gunned down or executed by the Mahdi Army militia of the anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The local hospital reported 25 Iraqi troops and five militia dead, along with 10 civilians. The Washington Post said some Iraqi troops had been beheaded.
When quiet had returned to the streets after reinforcements arrived, the Mahdi militia was still reportedly in control of much of the city.
If this was a victory, it was a melancholy one. And if this is good news, you wonder what bad news looks like.
Americans in helicopter gun ships supported Polish trainers and Iraqi combat troops and police. On the other side was a hardened paramilitary force, some of whom may have been trained and equipped inside Iran.
Both the British and American leadership were busy backpedaling from warnings that this could drift into a civil war, even though Iraqis are killing each other by the hundreds every week. But the definition of what kind of war this is becoming is a moot point.
This is tough, main unit urban combat. The evidence that Iranians are financing and supplying some of the Mahdi Army units is rapidly making this a proxy U.S.-Iranian war, with Iraqis torn between the two powers.
What's worse, Sadr, the 33-year-old anti-American firebrand, controls a bloc of at least 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament and is said to hold several Cabinet seats in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's governing coalition. So he is more than just a maverick troublemaker and sectarian terrorist on the loose.
The militias - not just the Mahdi Army but dozens of others all over Iraq - are now the biggest part of the insurgency against the elected Iraqi government, U.S. commanders in Iraq are quoted as saying. That means they're bigger than al-Qaeda and the remnants of the Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard and Baath Party insurgents who have been terrorizing Iraq virtually from the beginning of the Iraq war.
And yet the choices here for the United States are limited.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, is pushing a plan to decentralize Iraq while redeploying U.S. troops and withdrawing them by 2007. He and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, have proposed giving Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis their own regions of Iraq, with the expectation that the militias would then retreat into these regions and end sectarian violence.
Unfortunately, much of the sectarian violence now is between different branches of the majority Shiite sect who are vying for control, with the Iranians appearing to stir up trouble between them.
Otherwise, the plan could mesh with the solution once set forth by a crusty old Republican senator from Vermont, George Aiken, during the Vietnam War. He proposed that the United States declare victory and get out.
A few more victory statements like Diwaniyah and the ground will be thoroughly prepared for the Aiken solution.
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