Friday, January 26, 2007

Maybe -- maybe -- real change

I'm oddly heartened by the extended and bloody fighting currently taking place along Haifa Street in Baghdad.

Attack helicopters pumped rockets at gunmen holed up in office towers and apartment blocks yesterday, as US and Iraqi forces swept through a notorious Sunni-insurgent enclave in the heart of Baghdad.

The US military said the fighting around Haifa Street was part of a new offensive launched before dawn to disrupt illegal militias and bring the volatile area at the heart of Baghdad under the control of Iraqi security forces.

At first glance, there's not much to be heartened by. This is the third or fourth time we've "retaken" the area since the invasion. And it's a Sunni stronghold, so it could be viewed as just another battle between the Shiite government (supported by U.S. troops) and the Sunni minority.

But one reason Haifa Street is restive again is that Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has been less active, thanks to an apparently real withdrawal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's protection. Doubts over whether Maliki was willing or even able to bring al-Sadr to heel drove a lot of skepticism over Bush's "surge" plan, which could only work if the Iraqi government finally got serious about getting its house in order. Not only does Maliki appear to be making a genuine effort, but al-Sadr himself seems to have realized that a confrontation with the government is not in his interest.

There remain, as always, serious signs of concern. For instance, A Sunni general respected by his American advisers was replaced midfight by a Shiite general, on Maliki's orders. And an American vow to fight gunmen in Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods alike remains untested. I don't doubt the Americans are willing to be evenhanded, but are the Iraqis? Maliki says yes, but he's been, uh, less than truthful on that score before.

This is but a small first sign -- not even a step. And there still remains the hard tasks, like cracking down on death squads, eliminating corruption and "ghost soldiers" in the Iraqi army, reforming the Iraqi police.... the list goes on.

But for now, Maliki has shown more willingness to do what is necessary than I would have believed even two weeks ago.

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