By attacking Sadr’s neighborhoods this week, Maliki’s troops pushed the Shia masses closer to Sadr; and by losing, they made the slum people prouder than ever of their home team. That’s what you get when you go for a “defining moment” in guerrilla war.
To understand what happened this week, you need to zoom out to the big picture, see what Petraeus and Maliki thought would happen, and then forward it to what actually did happen. Iraq right now has four real zones of influence: Kurdistan, which is withdrawing and fortifying itself as fast as it can; the Sunni Triangle, bloodied by four years of fighting the US and ready to be bribed for a while; Baghdad, which is turning into a Shia-dominated city fast; and Basra, solidly Shia. The major action now is Shia vs. Shia.
The Shia are divided into two major factions: Maliki is our guy, but his real loyalty is to a middle-class Shia group that has military and political wings. The political wing is the Dawa Party; the military group used to be called the Badr Brigade, but these days it calls itself the Iraqi Army.
The Badr Brigade has an interesting history. During the Iran-Iraq War, it fought for the Iranians against Saddam, as a big (50,000-man) auxiliary unit. When we disbanded Saddam’s army and the Sunni went insurgent, the Badr Brigade stepped smoothly into the power vacuum and became the core of the new Iraqi Army. So don’t think of this as a real Western-style national army, drawn from all of Iraq’s various groups or any of that crap. The current Iraqi Army is a particular Shia militia that just happens to be willing to wear the uniforms we bought them. They’re not really in it for “the nation,” much less their American paymasters. They’re there to use their new fancy weapons and big money to push the Dawa Party’s agenda down everybody else’s throats.
And like I have to keep saying over and over, the purely military hardware aspect of this sort of war is the least important factor of all. The Iraqi Army had the weaponry on their side, and they got their asses kicked by the Sadrists, because the Sadrists were defending their home neighborhoods, those stinking slums that mean the whole world to people who live there. Victory in insurgency is a matter of morale, and you build it slowly, the way Mao said, by helping the locals in their dull little civvie lives. Then, when the army comes to try to take you down, they don’t have a chance, because you’ve prepped the neighborhood well, the locals are your eyes and ears, and it just plain doesn’t mean as much to the government troops as it does to your cadre who were raised there. That’s why Hezbollah’s part-time amateurs were able to beat the Israeli professionals in 2006, and that’s why Sadr was ahead of the game when he called the fight off this week. It’s like what Suvorov said: train hard, fight easy.
Truth is, if any group comes out of this looking good, militarily or morally, it’s the Mahdi Army and their leader, the fat man himself, “Mookie” as they call him on Free Republic: Moqtada al-Sadr. He’s the Dawa Party’s big target in this failed crackdown. The quickest way to understand Sadr’s group is to think of Hezbollah in Lebanon and their leader, Nasrullah. (They even look alike—that sedentary mullah lifestyle, I guess.) Hezbollah built its power by providing social services to the poorest slum Shia communities, and the Mahdi Army works the same way, following the old Maoist line that a guerrilla army should work with the civilians, doing the dull peacetime stuff like public health, building projects, food distribution.
Like Hezbollah, the Sadrists cooperate with Iran, but no way in the world are they Iranian puppets. In fact, it’s “our” Shia group, the Badr Brigades—the core of the Iraqi Army—that has an embarrassing history of fighting for the Iranians against their own country, Iraq. But that doesn’t mean they’re Iraqi puppets either.