Monday, April 07, 2008

Good News from Basra

If good news can come from people shooting and killing each other, then there was good news from Basra last week.

Briefly, for those who weren't paying attention: The official government of Iraq, lead by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, attempted to take control of Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, which has actually been controlled by Shiite militias, and not the government, for quite some time. After several days of fighting (and more than several desertions from the Iraqi forces), a cease-fire was negotiated between al-Maliki and Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who told his followers to stop fighting, and they stopped fighting. (Mostly. There is still some fighting going on in Sadr City, outside Baghdad.)

This is good news for several reasons:

1. It means that we finally have a clearly defined civil war, with organized forces lead by identifiable leaders. In the past, attempts to describe the war in Iraq as a "civil war" were rejected by many who claimed that the violence was too disorganized and too chaotic to be a civil war. At least in Basra, the violence is now organized enough to be recognizable as a civil war.

2. It demonstrates once again (if additional demonstrations were needed) that "the surge" accomplished very little beyond policing Baghdad, and that there is no military solution to the problems in Iraq, which are ultimately political.

3. It demonstrates that negotiated political solutions are possible. It has been said that politics is the art of the possible. If the Maliki government can now see that there is no possible military solution to Basra, but a political solution is possible, it may have no choice but to take the political solution.

Faced with these truths, there is only one possible conclusion: It's time for us to leave. Our continuing military presence in Iraq can do nothing to change the long-term prospects for a stable Iraq, and perpetuates the illusion of an Iraqi government that is not really governing and might never be able to govern in the way we expected.

Some politicians (such as Sen. Joseph Biden) and some commentators have suggested that Iraq might have to be broken up into semi-autonomous regions under a rather weak central government that will exist mainly to administer oil revenues and provide national security. In fact, that is what is already happening, with Kurds controlling northern Iraq, Sunni chiefs controlling western Iraq, and Shiite militias (as we have now seen) controlling southern Iraq. Only Baghdad, in the middle, remains problematical.

This is obviously not the Iraq that the Bush administration wants, but right now what the administration wants is last on my list of priorities.

Left to themselves, the Iraqis might be able to figure out how to govern themselves and make a federal government work. The continuing presence of American forces can only slow the process down, and possibly distort it, by obscuring the true powers in Iraq.

So it's time to leave.