After his outlaw militiamen raised white flags and skedaddled from their latest round of combat with the Iraqi Army, radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr declared victory.
He always does. He understands media bravado. He wagers that survival bandaged by bombast and swathed in sensational headlines is a short-term triumph. Survive long enough, and Sadr bets he will prevail.
This time, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a contrarian press release, however, calling the Iraqi Army's anti-militia operations in southern Iraq a "success."
A dispute over casualties in the firefights has ensued, as it always does. An Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman alleged that Sadr's militia had been hit hard in six days of fighting, suffering 215 dead, 155 arrested and approximately 600 wounded. The government spokesman gave no casualty figures for Iraqi security forces.
No one, of course, could offer an independent confirmation, but if the numbers are accurate they provide an indirect confirmation of reports that Sadr's Mahdi Militia (Jaish al-Mahdi, hence the acronym JAM) had at least a couple thousand fighters scattered throughout southern Iraq. This is not shocking news, but a reason to launch a limited offensive when opportunity appeared.
Numbers, however, are a very limited gauge. The firefights, white flags, media debate and, for that matter, the Iraqi-led anti-militia offensive itself are the visible manifestations of a slow, opaque and occasionally violent political and psychological struggle that in the long term is likely democratic Iraq's most decisive: the control, reduction and eventual elimination of Shia gangs and terrorists strongly influenced if not directly supported by Iran.
Other Shia militia and gangs confront Iraq, but Sadr is the most vexing case. His father, a leading Shia cleric, was murdered -- many Iraqis believe at the order of Saddam Hussein. That makes his father a political and religious symbol.
And Sadr knows it. So do his financiers.
For four years, the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi government have intermittently sparred with Sadr, sometimes in parliament, sometimes in the streets.
The Iraqi government's strategy has been to bring former insurgents into the political process. Since interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi articulated that goal in mid-2004, the central government's complex array of enemies has sought to thwart that program.
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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