This could be very, very bad news:
"Serious fighting broke out Tuesday in Basra and Baghdad, Iraq’s largest cities, between restive members of Iraq’s biggest Shiite militia and Iraqi Army forces backed by American troops.
The scale and intensity of the clashes kept many residents home in Baghdad. Barrages of what appeared to be rockets hit the fortified Green Zone area for the second time in three days. In Basra, Iraq’s most important oil-exporting center, thousands of Iraqi government soldiers and police officers moved to drive out Shiite militia members who have taken over big swaths of that city.
The Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, had been observing a cease-fire that began in August and has been partly credited, along with the influx of thousands of extra American troops, with improved security in the country. But Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who leads the Mahdi Army, called Monday for a nationwide civil disobedience campaign in response to what his followers characterized as unwarranted crackdowns on them.
The violence raised fears across Iraq that the cease-fire was in danger of collapsing, erasing the security gains of the past six months."
"The radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr today called for "civil revolt" after a crackdown on Shia factions in Basra killed 22 people. (...)
"We call upon all Iraqis to stage sit-ins all over Iraq as a first step," Sadr said in a statement. "And if the people's demands are not respected by the Iraqi government, the second step will be to declare civil revolt in Baghdad and all other provinces.""
IraqSlogger reports that heavy fighting has broken out in eastern Baghdad, and that many government checkpoints there have been deserted in anticipation of attacks against them. The WSJ adds:
"Residents in two Shiite-controlled neighborhoods here said armed militias have taken over rooms in several schools and stocked them with rockets, in a sign they could be gearing up for more attacks against the U.S.-backed government."
Ilan Goldenberg, who has been burrowing around in casualty statistics, explains why this is such bad news:
"The drop in violence in Iraq has generally been attributed to four elements 1) More American forces and the change in tactics to counterinsurgency; 2) The Awakening movement; 3) The Sadr ceasfire; and 4) The ethnic cleansing and physical separation of the various sides.
It's hard to say for sure, which of these factors was the most important. The Bush Administration will tell you it's all about the troop levels. I've tended to believe it's more of a mix and was most inclined towards the Anbar Awakening and the sectarian cleansing as the important factors. But when you look at the data it really seems to indicate that the Sadr ceasefire may have been the key.
If you look at the graph that MNF-I has been using on civilian casualties it looks to tell a pretty clear story. The first major drop in violence came in early 2007 before the troop surge. It looks like it was mostly based on the fact that the worst of the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad had been completed (I outlined this argument more throughly a few months back).
The second drop in violence came in September. By that time the full surge had already been in effect for 2-3 months and the Awakening had been going on for a year. The Sadr ceasefire occured on August 28 and suddenly boom a big drop in violence. That could be a coincidence and it could be that all four factors came together. But the data seems to point to the fact that the Sadr Ceasefire more then anything else is what caused the drop in violence in the early fall.
If that is in fact the case, we really have to hope that this is only a temporary spat and that the ceasefire holds. If not, the situation could deteriorate very quickly."
The surge has never achieved its stated purpose: namely, to enable political progress and reconciliation between Shi'a and Sunnis. Violence has gone down, which is a wonderful thing, but it has never been clear how much of that was due to the surge itself, and how much to the fact that we paid off the Sunnis, and Sadr declared his cease-fire. I hope we're not about to find out.