Sunday, May 11, 2008

So, Should I Admit I Was Wrong?

The Mahdi Army has done it again. In Sadr City, as in Basra, when attacked it has fought long enough to bloody its opponents and then backed down. Both times it has, in effect, agreed to power share with the Iraqi Army in an area it formerly controlled, but in has it agreed to disband or disarm. In both cases the US/Iraqi offensive has yielded a military stalemate, a partial political victory, and the potential for a renewal of hostilities.

When fighting first broke out in Basra, my impulse was to write a warning about the folly of a general offensive against the Mahdi Army. I intended to warn that it would not be limited to Basra; it would include Sadr City, and every major town in southern Iraq. Certainly the US forces would be able to take any one given city, at the price of reducing it to a heap of rubble, but an attempt to subdue all of southern Iraq would be like the height of the war in Anbar Province multiplied three-fold. (Because Shiites make up about 60% of the Iraqi population and Sunni Arabs 20%). But in both cases Muqtada al-Sadr backed down when faced with the prospect of all-out war, whether fearing the outcome, or preferring to live to fight another day (possibly in the October elections).

So, should I acknowledge that I was wrong about the Mahdi Army, that it is really a paper tiger, that there won't be war in the south after all? Maybe. But I have made other baleful prophecies (pre-blogging, alas), that appeared to be dead wrong but ultimately proved right, just later than expected.

When we were just getting started in Iraq, there was discussion that an Iranian-style theocracy was the "worst case scenario," but it unlikely to happen. My thought at the time was that we would be lucky to end up with a theocracy; I could think of much worse things, like a prolonged people's war against the US as occupying power. Potentially theocratic factions joined the negotiating process over Iraq's future, and optimists declared the danger was passed. I wondered myself. Fast forward to today.

An even stronger example was when George Bush announced that Yasser Arafat must go. Arafat, he said, was inhibiting the creation of moderate leadership, and if only he could be removed, a new, freely elected, democratic leader would make peace with Israel. I was scornful. Yes, Arafat was a brute and a thug, but he was not inhibiting the creation of moderate leadership, he was the moderate leadership. His chief rivals were not model democrats eager to make peace with Israel, but Hamas, which thought Arafat was not hawkish enough.

In the short run, I appeared to be wrong. The Americans and Israelis were about to conjure up a moderate after all, Mahmud Abbas. He started moving into Arafat's place; he showed himself willing to make a deal with Israel. Then Arafat died and negotiations proceeded. I was prepared to acknowledge myself wrong. And then the negotiations broke down. And Hamas won the election. And they are regularly bombarding Israel with rockets. And Arafat looks a whole lot better by comparison.

So maybe I was wrong and the Mahdi Army is overrated and with crumble without all-out war. Or maybe it is just lying low and biding its time. And maybe some day it will decide we have pushed too far and that its survival is at stake. And maybe whoever pushes that far will come to regret that decision.

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