On the Ground in Iraq

ON THE GROUND IN IRAQ….Blake Hounshell interviews McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau chief, Nancy Youssef, about facts on the ground in Iraq:

FP: There’s been a debate in the media about how much credit should be given to “the surge” for what you’re seeing now. Barack Obama said it was just one of several factors that helped improve the security situation. Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, didn’t even credit the addition of U.S. troops in his recent interview with Der Spiegel. Meanwhile, John McCain gives the surge the lion’s share of the credit. Who do you think is right?

NY: When you ask the Iraqis here, they say that the added U.S. forces were a part of it, but what really turned things around was the Sahwa movement [of former insurgents switching sides], Moqtada’s ceasefires, and in their minds, Basra. Basra was the first Iraqi-led success story, and it really changed the momentum. So, the Iraqis that we talk to see it as a complex equation with the U.S. troop surge as just one factor. And frankly, the situation on the ground suggests that they’re right, because the surge troops have left, and the security situation remains better.

….FP: Do you think that Maliki is overestimating his ability to keep things under control as U.S. forces draw down?

NY: When I was embedded with Iraqi troops in Amarah, in the south, they didn’t fire one shot. They made maybe a handful of arrests. They didn’t find any real Mahdi Army leaders. They’re knocking down open doors, so it’s not surprising that things are going well. The Mahdi Army has fled.

What happens when they come back? Can the Iraqi Army take charge? And the truth is right now, nobody knows. But I tell you, having embedded with the Iraqi Army, they are worried about it. They know that the wins in Basra and Sadr City and in Amarah did not happen because they were outfighting the militiamen. It was because Moqtada al-Sadr said “Don’t fight,” and most of those militiamen fled. What happens when they inevitably come back? How confident can we be that the security gains are sustainable when the Iraqi Army has to face a real fight? And nobody knows the answer.

It’s only natural that Iraqis are going to play up the Iraqi factors that helped improve security, just as it’s only natural for Americans to play up our contributions. Still, Youssef is pretty clearly saying here that of course Obama is right when he says there are multiple reasons for the reduction in violence in Iraq, including not just the surge, but also the Sunni Awakening and the Mahdi Army ceasefires.

(But — what if you simply redefine the surge to include all these things? Then McCain is right after all that the surge deserves most of the credit. And believe it or not, that appears to be his strategy. “A surge is really a counterinsurgency made up of a number of components,” he said on Wednesday. “I’m not sure people understand that ‘surge’ is part of a counterinsurgency.” Things are really getting desperate in McCain land.)

In any case, the Basra thing is interesting too. At the time of the battle, last March, it certainly looked to me as if the Iraqi forces were doing poorly in Basra, and to this day there remain some unexplained oddities about how the fighting concluded and who was calling the shots when it did. Still, even though it required U.S. help, there’s no question that in the end the pacification of Basra was a success. That said, if it’s true that that success is driving a big chunk of the Iraqi public’s newfound confidence, it would sure be interesting to finally know what really happened in Basra. Did Maliki’s troops really win? Or did the Mahdi Army simply decide to fade away, as Youssef suggests? Why? Was the ceasefire orchestrated by Iran? Those questions, which were all hanging in the air after the battle was over, seem to have evaporated in the months since. It would be nice to see some fresh reporting on this now that the smoke has cleared and we have nearly half a year of distance from the fog of events.