The multiple bombings in Baghdad last Wednesday — the deadliest attacks in the city since US and Iraqi forces launched a crackdown to halt Iraq’s slide into civil war — mark a terrible high in sectarian strife in Iraq. The attacks killed nearly 200 people, mostly Shias, and were apparently timed to coincide with each other, soon after Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that his government would take security control of the country from foreign forces by the year-end. Mr Maliki is under growing pressure from the powerful anti-American Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who wants to set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. It was probably to press this demand that he withdrew six ministers belonging to his political movement from the Maliki government earlier in the week.
The latest bloodbath could prompt the cleric’s Mehdi army, which numbers in the tens of thousands, to retaliate against Sunni factions, even if al-Qaeda — more than Sunni groups — is blamed for most attacks on Shias in Iraq. Unfortunately, the US strategy in Iraq still seems mired in uncertainties. With the 2008 presidential campaign heating up, neither Democrats nor the Republicans appear in any mood to let Iraq hijack their poll platforms. The Democrats are pushing a Congressional Bill that ties a troop timeline to the funding that President Bush wants for his ‘surge’ plan in Iraq. The Bill obviously reflects the mandate of a majority of Americans, who would rather see troop numbers drawn down in Iraq, not increased.
While Republicans have a point in arguing that the surge strategy should be given some time to work to create the space for political progress among Iraqi factions, every passing day makes it seem like wishful thinking. In any case, with public opinion evidently against continued involvement in Iraq, there won’t be enough time for any counter-insurgency strategy to work. A better idea for Washington would be to reduce the US footprint in Iraq, prompting Iraqi insurgents to try and seize power in Baghdad, instead of being involved with al-Qaeda. It would be easier for any Iraqi government to handle that rather than the murderous terrorism peddled by al-Qaeda.