To be sure, the success in the Sunni areas is real, but it may have greater long-term significance in the region than it does in Iraq. We've learned an important lesson in Anbar province: the Islamic-extremist message is a loser. Most Muslims do not want to live without music, television and, especially, tobacco. They don't want their daughters forcibly married to jihadis or their sons shrouded in explosive vests. That is certainly good news, but it's not enough. Indeed, the campaign against AQI may be among the last useful missions for the U.S. military in Iraq. We could drive out every last Islamic extremist, and the country would still be in the midst of a civil war that is trending toward chaos. And make no mistake: the U.S. colonialist insistence on dictating the shape of Iraq's future framing a constitution, training an Iraqi army and the threat of a permanent U.S. military presence has exacerbated the chaos.
It has been clear for months that Nouri al-Maliki's National Unity government is, as a senior U.S. official said, "none of the above." Senator Carl Levin called for it to be replaced after his and Senator John Warner's mid-August Iraq jaunt. And Ambassador Ryan Crocker told me, "The fall of the Maliki government, when it happens, might be a good thing." But replace it with what? The consensus in the U.S. intelligence community is that there's going to be lots of bloodshed, including fighting among the Shi'ites, before a credible Iraqi government emerges. It also seems that the U.S. attempt to build an Iraqi army and police force has been a failure. Some units are pretty good, but most are unreliable, laced with members of various Shi'ite militias. This was clear from my conversations with U.S. combat officers on the ground in Baqubah, Baghdad and Yusufia. It became clearer when seven enlisted men serving in Baghdad wrote a very courageous Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on Aug. 19 in which they said, "Reports that a majority of Iraqi army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric."
The military success against al-Qaeda in Anbar province has led to a certain incoherence in U.S. policy. We are working bottom up, from the tribal grass roots, with the Sunnis ... but top down, and not very successfully, with the Shi'ite majority. According to Crocker, tribes aren't as important among the Shi'ites, who tend to organize themselves in larger structures, especially around two dominant political families, the Sadrs and the Hakims. Each family has a militia. The Sadrs have the Mahdi Army, and the Hakims have the Badr Corps, and these two forces are now at war with each other in southern Iraq. In recent weeks, Hakim-leaning governors of two provinces were assassinated, most likely by special units associated with the Mahdi Army.
In the southern port city of Basra, the situation is complicated by a third party, Fadhila, which controls the local government. Basra may just be a metaphor for Iraq right now. There is no possible role for the U.S. military in the dispute there. The British are leaving, and the intra-Shi'ite battle is ramping up. The Iranians are trying to play all sides. "Under a different set of circumstances, you might argue as some are now doing that we need a Basra surge," Crocker told me. "But you'd need a fairly large force, and we don't have the troops. And if we even proposed it, the political element in the U.S. would go nuts."
The next leader of Iraq and the shape of the next Iraqi government and its armed forces will probably be determined by how the Sadr-Hakim battle turns out, as will the decision about how or whether to reconcile with the Sunnis. The Kurds will prefer the aristocratic Hakims to the populist Sadrs, and so will we. But aristocrats seldom win battles of this sort; a strongman who is no fan of democracy or the West might emerge. In any case, the choice will be made by the Iraqis, not us.