Remember this name: Amar Al-Hakim. He is 36 years old, the heir apparent to one of Iraq's two leading Shi'ite dynasties, and a few weeks ago in Ramadi, he did something quite remarkable. He went to meet and make peace with the more than 100 Sunni sheiks who led the movement to kick al-Qaeda in Iraq out of Anbar province. He was accompanied by the leader of his family's militia, the Badr Organization, which was lethally anti-Sunni until recently. The Hakim delegation was ferried to the meeting in Black Hawk helicopters by the U.S. military. "It was quite a scene," a U.S. military officer who was present told me. "Amar went through a receiving line, hugging each of the Sunni sheiks, and then he made a speech: 'We are not Shi'ites. We are not Sunnis. We are all Iraqis, and we must reconcile.' It was a showstopper. He has a real presence. He and the host, Sheik Ahmed [Abu Risha], went and prayed together, which was a big deal symbolically. Then there was a 'goat grab'--a feast--and an agreement to keep meeting."
The Ramadi goat grab may turn out to be a significant moment in the stabilization of Iraq ... or, since this is Iraq, maybe not. It is certainly a sign that the U.S. military mission is continuing to make progress. The level of attacks against U.S. forces has fallen dramatically across the country. There have been days, in recent weeks, when even Baghdad approached a tolerable level of urban violence and criminality. "And the Ramadi meeting wasn't at all unique," a senior U.S. diplomat told me. "You've had mass meetings of tribal leaders from Anbar and Karbala provinces," which are the Sunni and Shi'ite heartlands, respectively. "The governors of those provinces were literally building trenches on their border, and they are now meeting regularly. You had the highest-ranking Sunni politician in the country, Tariq al-Hashemi, go to Najaf to meet with the leading Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani. All of this would have been unthinkable only a few months ago."
The apparent progress raises two questions: First, as always, what's the catch? And second, if the progress is real, if the Sunni extremists have been routed, if Baghdad has been ethnically cleansed to the point of near pacification, if the bottom-up reconciliation efforts are gaining momentum, what is the U.S. military mission now? Why can't we start bringing home the bulk of our troops immediately?
Here's one catch: there is a missing player in all this hugging and goat eating. He is Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army militia and, quite possibly, the most popular Shi'ite political figure in the country. Al-Sadr is less accessible, a fuzzier figure than al-Hakim. The U.S. intelligence community has only a vague sense of how much control he has over his disparate movement, which includes everything from Iranian-trained guerrillas, referred to as "special groups," to ragtag teenage criminal street gangs who claim the Mahdi mantle. He has been spending a lot of time in Iran lately, where he is said to be receiving advanced religious training. The future of Iraq is likely to be decided by the struggle for power between the Hakim and Sadr families. That struggle could easily turn very lethal. Indeed, in recent days there have been battles between the Sadr and Hakim forces in Karbala and Basra. The next crucial U.S. military decision is, How deeply do we get involved in this fight? Do we side with the Hakims, who are more élite and less popular than the Sadrists? Do we continue what we are doing now--sporadic raids targeting the special groups and police actions aimed at the street gangs in Baghdad? Do we expand our anti-Sadr actions into the southern third of Iraq, a course of action that could prove quite bloody?
That is a decision for a President to make, but apparently not this President. George W. Bush has abdicated his control over the military mission and seems boggled by the political side of the Iraqi equation. He has lashed himself to the inept, unrepresentative government of Nouri al-Maliki but seems powerless to influence that government's actions. Bush's Iraq poster boys, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, are doing a wonderful job but lack the rank to make strategic regional policy. The Administration was so inept in dealing with Turkey that its designated mediator, retired General Joseph Ralston, recently quit in frustration. Bush's refusal to engage the Iranians has left a clear field for Russian mini-czar Vladimir Putin to move in and build an alliance. The Secretary of State is chasing an Israeli-Palestinian chimera at a moment when a burst of high-level U.S. diplomatic pressure might actually make a difference in Iraq. There are goats and hugs to be had, and we are not grabbing them.