Failing the Test Against Iraqi Militias

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For weeks the U.S. and Iraqi militaries have been striking piecemeal at an enemy they are not even allowed to name: Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army. And after fierce clashes Monday, it appears that Iraq's government and military is willing to go only so far in their efforts to rein in the powerful Shi'ite militia.

On Monday Sadr's Shi'ite militia ambushed Iraqi Army soldiers in the southern city of Diwaniya and killed about 25 of them in the ensuing battle. According to a U.S. military official at least eight civilians also died. Reports on the number of militiamen killed varied wildly, with early reports claiming as few as five and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki claiming 50.

Maliki's credibility may also be a casualty of the battle, or at least its aftermath. The fight, in essence, put him and his government's claims to have a viable path to a national reconciliation plan to the test: either they are prepared to fight costly battles to defeat committed Shi'ite militiamen, or they are willing to cede control of neighborhoods and cities to the militias. In Diwaniya, it now seems, the government has chosen the path of least resistance, gaining a measure of calm in the city on Sadr's terms.

Unrest began Saturday when the Iraqi Army arrested a local Mahdi Army leader in Diwaniya. He was wanted for laying roadside bombs, including one that targeted an Iraqi Army division commander and killed three of his bodyguards. After a lull the fighting resumed Monday with the militia's deadly ambush.

The U.S. military said the fighting involved only the Iraqi Army; Americans provided air cover but not help on the ground. Polish troops are responsible for Diwaniya and residents said the Polish base was mortared during the fighting.

The Iraqi government and U.S. military take pains to say that their operations do not target the Mahdi Army or Sadr — just individuals and gangs that claim the affiliation for their own purposes.

But when the provincial governor and members of the provincial council sought an end to the violence, they traveled to the holy city of Najaf to meet with the rabble-rousing cleric. The agreement seems to have restored the status quo ante: the militia will stay off the streets and the army will withdraw.

According to a Sadr representative in Diwaniya, the militia commander whose arrest sparked the violence will be tried in court and not held indefinitely as a detainee. Now that the military has backed off, the Iraqi legal system may do the same. Sadr himself was targeted for arrest in 2004 on the charge of ordering the assassination of a rival. The charge was ultimately shelved when he struck a deal and said he would join the political process.

On Tuesday Sadr's representatives repeated their constant refrain that the violence was not carried out by legitimate members of the Mahdi Army and was not ordered from on high. The question now is whether the Maliki government can survive by continuing to echo that fiction, or if an escalating confrontation is inevitable.