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Is the Surge Already Producing Results?

By Jack Kelly

Three interesting things have happened since President Bush announced plans to "surge" U.S. troops.

First, al Qaida appears to be retreating from Baghdad. A military intelligence officer has confirmed to Richard Miniter, editor of Pajamas Media, a report in the Iraqi newspaper al Sabah that Abu Ayyub al Masri, the head of al Qaida in Iraq, has ordered a withdrawal to Diyala province, north and east of Baghdad.

Mr. al Masri's evacuation order said that remaining in Baghdad is a no-win situation for al Qaida, because the Fallujah campaign demonstrating the Americans have learned how to prevail in house to house fighting, Mr. Miniter said.

"In more than 10 years of reading al Qaida intercepts, I've never seen (pessimistic) language like this," he quoted his intelligence officer source as saying.

Second, the radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr, whose Iranian-subsidized militia, the Mahdi army, is responsible for most of the assaults on Sunni civilians in Iraq, is cooling his rhetoric and lowering his profile.

"Mahdi army militia members have stopped wearing their black uniforms, hidden their weapons and abandoned their checkpoints in an apparent effort to lower their profile in Baghdad in advance of the arrival of U.S. reinforcements," wrote Leila Fadel and Zaineb Obeid of the McClatchy Newspapers Jan. 13.

Third, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is putting more distance between himself and al Sadr, upon whose bloc of votes in parliament he had relied for political support.

Last Friday al Sadr ordered the 30 lawmakers and six cabinet ministers he controls to end the boycott of the government he ordered two months ago. AP writer Steven Hurst described this Monday as "a desperate bid to fend off an all out American offensive."

Despite this, Mr. Maliki consented to the arrest that same day of Abdul Hadi al Durraji, al Sadr's media director in Baghdad. Mr. Sadr said Saturday some 400 of his supporters have been arrested in recent days.

The first development is more of a problem relocated than a problem solved, because Baghdad's gain from al Qaida's departure will be Diyala's loss.

A strategic withdrawal makes good sense from al Qaida's point of view. It's better to live to fight another day. The intelligence officer who was Mr. Miniter's source thinks Mr. al Masri is a more formidable opponent than was his predecessor, Abu Musab al Zarqawi who (ironically) met his end after an encounter with an F-16 in Diyala province.

But leaving Baghdad gives the government and the Americans the opportunity to assert control in the contested neighborhoods, which will make it difficult for al Qaida to return. And because the media play up events in Baghdad more than events anywhere else in the country, it means al Qaida will be leaving center stage.

The lowered profile of the Mahdi army will only be a problem postponed if decisive action isn't taken against al Sadr and his militia.

"Mookie," as the troops call him, can only be relied upon to behave when he is terrified.

So success hinges on the attitude of the Iraqi government.

Mr. Maliki's turnaround on the Mahdi army "was puzzling because as late as Oct. 31, he had intervened to end a U.S. blockade of Sadr City, the northeast Shiite enclave in Baghdad that is headquarters to the militia," Mr. Hurst wrote.

Two Iraqi government officials told him Mr. Maliki had dropped his protection of the Mahdi army because U.S. intelligence had persuaded him it was infiltrated by death squads, the AP reporter wrote.

"Al Maliki realized he couldn't keep defending the Mahdi army because of the information and evidence that the armed group was taking part in the killings, displacing people and violating the state's sovereignty," Mr. Hurst quoted one of those officials as saying.

But Mr. Maliki would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to have recognized from the get go that the Mahdi army is one gigantic death squad. I suspect Mr. Maliki is only seeing the light now because President Bush finally is applying some heat.

Mr. Maliki has tried to walk a line between the Scylla of the Americans and the Charybdis of the Iranians, but the steps he's taking now will be difficult to retrace.

"He knows that his personal risk increases with each Shiite militia commander he arrests, and eventually he will pass through a door through which he cannot return," said the Web logger Tigerhawk.

Though they may turn out to be fleeting, the troop surge, though barely begun, already is producing beneficial results. Efforts to write it off in advance as a "failure" are, at best, premature.

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