How Iraq's Top General Walks a Fine Line Between Politics and War

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In his three decades of opposition to the Saddam Hussein regime, Gen. Babikir Zibari worked as both a military commander and a political leader of the Kurdish Pesh Merga. So the top general in the new Iraqi Army knows better than most when a military question requires a political answer.

It is true that the latest Baghdad security plan — which has seen several thousand American and Iraqi troops isolating and searching the city's most dangerous neighborhoods — has reduced the violence here for the moment. But over and over again Iraq's insurgents have shown the willingness to bide their time during major US operations only to resurface when the American troop presence inevitably declines. So the real (and more difficult) question is not what the operation accomplishes in the short-term, but whether there is any genuine hope of stemming insurgent violence and sectarian strife in the long-term.

That's where the politics come in. "We are hoping to see what the prime minister announces," Babikir said, referring to long-discussed plans for national reconciliation, which aims to disband Shi'ite militias and bring some Sunni insurgents into the political fold with a promise of amnesty. "This will support us, and enable us to deal with the situation a lot better than we have done in the past."

Babikir's careful reply actually says quite a lot about the complex challenges he and his country face. After all, relying on Iraq's politicians to cement the tactical gains made by the American and Iraqi militaries is more a prayer than a strategy. Though the rail-thin officer downplayed the danger of militias affiliated with members of the government, like the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army, many of the political opportunities cited by Babikir could just as easily be called part of the problem.

Politicians doubling as militia chieftains seem to be driving the violence, or at the very least contributing to the proliferation of armed groups in Baghdad. Abdel Aziz al Hakim, whose Shi'ite coalition holds the most seats in Iraq's parliament, has called on Shi'ites to create armed neighborhood watches to defend themselves against terrorists. Meanwhile Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army operates from a sanctuary in Sadr City.

General Babikir and the US military have been a bit more aggressive on that front than the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki would prefer. Earlier this month a joint US-Iraqi raid into Sadr City freed prisoners, at least some of the Sunnis, being held by what Babikir called an "assassination cell."

Maliki denounced the raid and promised nothing like it would happen again. Gen. Babikir, though, defended the operation, saying his soldiers do not launch raids in Sadr City — or anywhere else — without specific intelligence.

But Babikir was also careful not to link the targets of the raid directly to Moqtada Sadr or his militia, saying violence attributed to the militia was actually the work of renegades.

"Those are the dangerous people," he said, "because they don't take orders from the leadership of the Mehdi Army." By contrast, he stressed, "the majority of [politicians affiliated with militias] are actually involved in the parliament; they have a great role to play in the parliament," Babikir said. "And they're all agreed on the national unity [plan]. And all their efforts are out there trying to calm the situation."

American officers and diplomats — to say nothing of the Iraqi government — join Babikir in his refusal to name an enemy or tie "insurgents and death squads" to larger political movements. Col. Michael Shields' Stryker Brigade, which spent a year in Mosul, had its mission extended by four months and is now working with the Iraqi Army to cordon off and search west Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods. "We're not targeting organizations," said Col. Michael Shields. "We're targeting the threats to the security of the people."

After three years of counter-insurgency warfare American commanders are well aware of what they can and cannot accomplish through force of arms. Shields said that the ultimate success of the new security push is out of the military's hands. "It's going to take the will of the people," Shields said. "It's going to take governance and economic development as well."

But while American power cannot solve Iraq's problems it may also be too late, after three years of war, to rely on Iraqi institutions to do the job. Gen.

Babikir emphatically declared that no one with sectarian loyalties had a place in the Iraqi armed forces. Yet beyond the high walls and earthen barriers that make Iraqi officers and politicians prisoners in their own country, many militiamen operate — sometimes openly — within the Iraqi security forces. And in neighborhoods like Sadr City militias, and not the government, command the support of the people.

Babikir, like some other American and Iraqi officials, alludes to these complexities even if political realities constrain what he can say — and what he can do. He cited efforts to bring the Mahdi Army under control through the political process, and said he did not anticipate a military push into Sadr City. "We don't want to create more problems," he said. "It's a very delicate situation." Spoken like a true politician, albeit one with a military background, who knows that the wrong choice of words can cause as much damage as a poorly executed battle plan.