Since at least fall 2003, an increase of 5,000 to 10,000 troops over a three-month window has been an option for coalition forces. For example, deploying a "ready brigade" from the 82nd Airborne Division would quickly bump troop strength in the region by around 4,000 soldiers. On several occasions (spring 2004, for example), commanders have accelerating planned reinforcements and delayed pending unit withdrawals.
Adding 20,000 troops to Iraq in a five- to six-month window is a significant increase but in and of itself not decisive, and certainly not a "new strategy."The relentless, focused targeting of Shia and Sunni extremist organizations is a far more important feature of what Iraqis are calling "the new security plan" than more U.S. troops. The coalition's effort to better integrate the economic and political development "lines of operation" with security operations could have greater long-term effects.
Attacks on Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army have been the most public examples of "focused targeting." Though Sadr's allies deny it, Iraqi and U.S. government spokesmen still claim that Sadr has left Iraq for Iran. Sadr bolted because the new offensive is indeed striking his militia.
In 2004, Iraqi Shia leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, told coalition commanders that Sadr should be dealt with politically -- and by Iraqis. Sistani's preferred method was to either absorb Sadr into the emerging democratic system or slowly marginalize him. Either way, Iraqis would defang Sadr without making him a "martyr."
The "preferred method" produced mixed results. Sadr was certainly not absorbed, nor was he thrust to the political margins. Sadr's personal influence has clearly diminished, however. In the meantime, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- a Shia -- has become Iraq's leading political figure. Moreover, Maliki enjoys Sistani's support and Sadr Sistani's disdain.
Maliki understands the United States will no longer wait for Sadr's dissipation. The Hollywood marquee would read "Maliki or Muqtada" -- a facile headline, but one containing a gram of truth. As coalition and Iraqi forces crack down on the Mahdi Army, Maliki is getting a few welcome political breaks, which may be the pleasant residue of "the preferred method." Sadr's "Iran trip" may have been a practical necessity, but it was not politically astute. It reinforces Iraqi contentions that Sadr's organization acts on behalf of Iran and that Sadr, rather than being the voice of the disenfranchised, is a mouthpiece.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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