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In Iraq and elsewhere, all eyes are currently on Najaf. As I had guessed, the battle ended with a whimper, not with a bang, as the Mahdi Army militiamen exfiltrated, and Moqtada al-Sadr turned over the keys to the mosque to Ayatollah al-Sistani.
But the real winner is likely once again to be the new Desert Fox, Mr. Sadr. How can that be, if in the end his militia could not stand against American troops?
First of all, Sadr and his antics in Najaf showed all of Iraq that the new Iraqi "sovereign government" is a false front. How? By making that government rely on American, not Iraqi, troops. From Sadr’s perspective, the fact that he suffered an (inevitable) tactical defeat at the hands of the Americans is far less important than the fact he fought the Americans. Iraq and the world saw the same show they witnessed before America "returned sovereignty to Iraq," namely Iraqis armed only with AK-47s and RPGs fighting American tanks and aircraft. As always, when David fights Goliath, David wins, at least on the moral level.
Second, Sadr positioned himself even more strongly as the leader of Iraq’s sans culottes, the jobless, hopeless Shi’ite young men who make up the Mahdi Army and any other Shi’ite army. In a recent article in my excellent hometown newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in Iraqi Shi’ism, Juan Cole, described them as "a Shi’ite ghetto youth gang." In fighting terms, that is a compliment, not an insult. Gangs will be one of the most important forms of combatants in Fourth Generation war (4GW). As the police in many an American city can attest, gangs are not easy to defeat. And this particular gang has both an endless source of recruits and a religious identity for which dying is seen as worthwhile. Sistani may have the support of most Shi’ites, but Sadr now has the support of most Shi’ite fighters, and that is what is likely to count.
Third, Sadr may have moved the Shi’ite areas of Iraq closer to what he seeks, a general uprising against the Americans (with himself as its George Washington). This is difficult to gauge from American news sources, because they have focused on Najaf itself. But what has happened in Najaf is less important in this regard than what has happened in the numerous other Shi’ite cities and towns, and in Baghdad’s Sadr City, which is Sadr’s home base (another reason he can easily afford a tactical defeat in Najaf). As is often the case in 4GW, the 9/10ths of the iceberg we cannot see is the dangerous part.
Meanwhile, the U.S. finds itself fighting a two-front war, one front against the Shi’ite Mahdi Army, the other against the Sunnis in Anbar Province. The U.S. Marine Corps has blanked out the news from that front, but the reported toll of Marine casualties seems to be rising. To a student of German military history such as myself, two-front wars can bring unhappy memories.
Of course, Moqtada al-Sadr may prove to be a new Desert Fox in more than one way. Rommel was a brilliant tactician, one of the best division commanders of all time. But at the operational and strategic levels, he faltered. As Mr. Sistani knows, the best strategy for yielding a Shi’ite-dominated Islamic republic of Iraq is to wait for an election, where Shi’ite numbers will tell. Sadr, more interested in his own future than Iraq’s, may be jumping the gun. At any future time he also could get himself captured, which might spur the general uprising he seeks, or killed, which might spark the revolution but leave him awkwardly placed to take full advantage of it. But the probability is that he will be as safe, hale and hearty as old bin Laden himself.
Professor Cole summed up the situation well. "The Americans will win militarily," he said. "But I think they are losing politically," because by fighting Sadr and his Mahdi Army they "made him a symbol of national resistance." It seems that we are damned if we do fight and damned if we don’t. That’s just how Fourth Generation war works, folks.