The latest example of the struggle against Iranian influence was the battle in Basra between Iraqi security forces and rogue factions of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which we wrote about late last week. General Petraeus highlighted the dichotomous lessons learned from this recent fighting. "Recent operations in Basra highlight improvements in the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to deploy substantial numbers of units, supplies, and replacements on very short notice," he said. "On the other hand, the recent operations also underscored the considerable work still to be done in the areas of logistics, force enablers, staff development, and command and control." On the positive side of the ledger, Ambassador Crocker has pointed out one additional lesson to be drawn from the Basra fighting: the fact that the "Shi'a majority government . . . has demonstrated its commitment to taking on criminals and extremists regardless of sectarian identity."
GIVEN THE SECURITY IMPROVEMENTS IN IRAQ, the crux of the current debate is the status of political reconciliation in the country. Ambassador Crocker said yesterday that "despite a slow start they [the Iraqis] have gained significant momentum" toward local, provincial, and national reconciliation. On a national level, the clearest evidence is seen in the Iraqi government's recent legislative accomplishments. As Fred Kagan has noted, between January 2007 and March 2008 Iraq's government "met 12 of the original 18 benchmarks set for it, including four out of the six key legislative benchmarks. It has made substantial progress on five more, and only one remains truly stalled." The legislative situation is dramatically improved compared to 2007.
The key benchmark issues that have been accomplished include the Provincial Powers Law (which included setting elections for October 1, 2008), the Accountability and Justice Law (de-Baathification reform), an amnesty law, and approval of the 2008 budget. To achieve this, Iraq's government adopted "a creative and unprecedented accord in Iraqi politics" in which all three laws were voted on simultaneously on February 13, 2008. This method ensured that all voting blocs were present for each vote, thus neutralizing some sectarian groups' tactic of failing to appear or walking out prior to particular votes.
To be sure, Iraq's parliament will face many further challenges. General Petraeus explained that "[i]n the coming months, Iraq's leaders must strengthen governmental capacity, execute budgets, pass additional legislation, conduct provincial elections, carry out a census, determine the status of disputed territories, and resettle internally displaced persons and refugees. These tasks would challenge any government, much less a still developing government tested by war."
INDEED, GENERAL PETRAEUS EMPHASIZED numerous times in his testimony the challenges that lay ahead. One critical factor in ensuring sustained progress is the Iraqi security forces' continued development. As we have already noted, the Iraqi troops have improved qualitatively and quantitatively. But as General Petraeus said yesterday, the "Iraqi Security Forces are not yet ready to defend Iraq or maintain security throughout the country on their own." The United States cannot maintain a significant presence in Iraq forever, and Iraq's forces must shoulder greater responsibility without being rushed to perform tasks they cannot manage.
The issue of militias will also be paramount over the course of the year. If Iraq's government is to be a legitimate, viable entity, it must establish and maintain a monopoly of force. This means that private militias must be disbanded. The steps taken to marginalize the Mahdi Army have been positive, but they must also be applied to the remaining Peshmerga units and Badr forces not integrated into the state apparatus.
The integration of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces should also be a priority. The Sunni and Shia fighters who have turned their weapons on al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army need to be rewarded for their efforts, and should be invited to participate in providing for Iraq's security. General Petraeus noted that progress has been made on this score, as "over 21,000 [Sons of Iraq] have already been accepted into the Police or Army or other government jobs."