Whatever critics at home and abroad may think, the “surge” that President Bush is planning for Iraq is more than a troop increase; it is a new and high-risk regional strategy. True, Bush’s plan will prove far too little and comes far too late to stabilize Iraq. But it does offer the United States some longer-term benefits in the regional battle with Iran for influence.
At the heart of the new strategy is Bush’s decision to take the fight directly to Iraq’s most powerful militia, the Mahdi Army. Under the nominal control of the militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the group has become Iraq’s largest and best-armed fighting force and is pursuing its own political and security agenda.
The Mahdi Army has exchanged fire with US troops before, most notably during the fierce battles for control of the southern Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala in 2004. Those confrontations ended with a truce of sorts – though skirmishes have continued – because US forces have been reluctant to fight Sunni insurgents and Shi’a militiamen at the same time.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also been reluctant to take on the Mahdi Army, mainly because the support of Sadr loyalists in Iraq’s parliament is crucial for his political survival. Now, instead of waiting for Maliki to act, US forces appear poised to do the job themselves.