Leaders of the [Sunni] Awakenings have been warning that they are "losing patience" and "the next few months will be decisive" so many times that I suspect some people have stopped taking them seriously. As with the evident nonchalance about the prospects of the major Sunni insurgency factions flipping back to the other side, this seems to rest on a notion that they have nowhere else to go and that there is neither the ability nor the desire to go back to the insurgency ("we don't need to accommodate those hoodlums," pace General Keane). This strikes me as a very dangerous bit of best-case scenario thinking, of a kind which hurt American efforts in the past and has continued to mar the analysis of surge cheerleaders throughout. There are all kinds of warning lights blinking, from both the Awakenings and from the insurgency factions whose members make up many of their cadres outside of Anbar.I confess that I'm probably one of those who has stopped taking these threats seriously. Iraqi politics is fueled by endless public threats, which makes them easy to dismiss, and I've probably also been lulled to sleep a bit by the remarkably durable decrease in violence we've seen over the past year. In the same way that a year of increasing violence can make you think it will never end, a year of decreasing violence can fool you into thinking that that will never end either.
[List of blinking lights follows.]
But there's another thing as well: almost nobody really seems to credit this, but I think the evidence suggests that Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army and chief thorn in the side of the American occupation, has been genuinely committed to keeping the peace for at least the past two years. I don't know why this is. Maybe he's had a religious epiphany in Qom. Maybe he got genuinely frightened by the growing power and radicalism of the extremists in the Mahdi Army. Maybe he was afraid that if he kept up the violence the U.S. Army would eventually lose patience and crush him. Maybe he was never really committed to violence in the first place and was only responding to (in his view) outrageous provocations.
Or maybe it's all or none of the above. But the fact is that a genuine commitment to reducing violence is pretty consistent with every action he's taken since early 2006. And that commitment has been as important as anything to keeping the peace. If he keeps it up — and all the signs suggest he will — there's a pretty good chance the Sunni tribes will stay relatively quiet too.
On the other hand, Marc lists six good reasons why I might be wrong about that. "We are potentially approaching a moment of truth," he says. "The consequences of building up these forces outside of the structures of the Iraqi state, while stringing them along with promises that require Iraqi government acquiesence to deliver may be coming due." That's always been the Achilles' heel of the "bottoms up" strategy of arming and supporting non-governmental groups in hopes of creating a precarious balance of forces, and the next few months may tell us whether, in the end, it's going to work.