Political pressure has mounted to crack down on the Baghdad neighborhood that harbors the militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr. Sunni Arabs, who make up the backbone of the insurgency, have long accused Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki of allowing Sadr City to remain a haven for the militia to keep the support of Sadr's followers.
"We think that much of the … violence that comes as a result of operations emanating from Sadr City will be remarkably diminished if they crack down," said Ammar Wajuih, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's main Sunni political organization.
U.S. and Iraqi military commanders setting out the next steps of the Baghdad security plan are concerned about stirring up a hornet's nest in a neighborhood of more than 2 million Shiites.
They worry that by moving too aggressively they could sabotage one of the few success stories in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The teeming streets of Sadr City are thriving while the rest of the violence-racked capital wilts. The district pulses with commerce and youth, even as huge stretches of Baghdad fade into ghost towns.
The reason for that of course is because Sadr City is largely protected by the Shiite militias that have rampaged throughout other parts of Baghdad and central Iraq.
U.S. troops took heavy casualties when they tried to storm Sadr City in the spring and summer of 2004. For the Americans, the grueling street fights with black-clad teens holding AK-47s while running down the streets represented a nadir few want to relive.
Rather than crush the Al Mahdi, the U.S. wound up bolstering Sadr's street credibility and undermining the popularity of then-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who was pro-American.
Not only that but U.S. officials, desperate to put bodies in Iraqi police and security uniforms, permitted those whose loyalties lie with the militias to infiltrate those forces.
Any new move into Sadr City remains controversial among military experts. Army Gen. Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff, and military analyst Frederick Kagan, who were among the most influential advocates of the current Bush administration plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by 21,500, have warned that a push into Sadr City would unnecessarily unite the country's now-splintered Shiite leadership.
"Attempting to clear Sadr City would almost certainly force the [Al Mahdi militia] into [a direct] confrontation with American troops," they wrote in a January report for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
"It would also do enormous damage to [Maliki's] political base and would probably lead to the collapse of the Iraqi government."
But now at least one of the authors questions that view. In an interview Tuesday, Kagan adjusted his position and said some early signs of success, including Sadr's recent disappearance from public view and successful sweeps of other heavily Shiite neighborhoods nearby, suggest that U.S. forces could move into Sadr City earlier than Keane and Kagan had advocated.
"It appears that I overestimated the Sadrists and underestimated Maliki," Kagan said. "Our troops have operated in these neighborhoods and these neighborhoods are not resisting."
I think the only thing Kagan has overestimated is the unwillingness of the Mahdi Army to lay low and wait us out. That they have done so thus far in neighborhoods that are "heavily Shiite" but not the Shiite strongholds that is Sadr City is no testement to how they will behave when U.S. and Iraqi forces move into their territory. And as Chris Floyd points out, Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda are still trying their hardest to undermine the security plan and provoke a Shiite response to their attacks.
I don't see how any security plan can effectively bring peace to Baghdad without bringing Sadr city under control. At the same time, to do so puts U.S. forces that much closer to being shot at by both sides in a civil war.