U.S., Iraqi troops enter Sadr City unopposed; Update: NBC sees progress from surge

They said they were coming three days ago and now they’re in. 1,100 troops — in an area with 1.5 million residents. House searches have already begun, as has the construction of a small fort which some of the local Sadrists are insisting be manned by Iraqi personnel only. I wonder why.

The mini-bombshell:

On Sunday, Mr. Maliki announced that he planned to reshuffle his cabinet within the next two weeks, possibly eroding Mr. Sadr’s influence in the government. While the prime minister did not say which officials he planned to replace, two prominent Shiite politicians said in interviews on Sunday that the Health Ministry, the most powerful of the six ministries run by a Sadr loyalist, will be removed from under Mr. Sadr’s control.

Like Captain Ed says, the only way Maliki can start booting Sadrist ministers is if he’s prepared to lose the support of their 30 MPs, and the only way he’s prepared to do that is if he has 30 MPs from the opposition set to take their place in his coalition. I have no idea who those replacements might be; neither, it seems, does Ed. Iyad Allawi and Zalmay Khalilzad were in Kurdistan today reportedly to drum up support for a new coalition that would, presumably, seek to replace Maliki with the secularist Shiite Allawi (whose party includes Jamal al-Din). Theoretically that’s the best thing that could happen to Iraq, but god knows how the religious Shiites would react to being stripped of power.

Which brings us to Sadr. What’s the deal?

Even before Feb. 14, U.S. and Iraqi troops had begun targeting top and middle-level officials in Sadr’s organization, arresting several key ones and killing at least two who resisted. Even more critical may have been the intervention of Shia elders. Alarmed at the U.S. crackdown, Sadr had an 11 p.m. meeting with Sistani about a month ago, according to an aide to the grand ayatollah, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with practice in the cleric’s office. “He asked the sayyid what he should do about the attacks against him, and [Sistani] told him, ‘You have two options: bear the consequences, on you and Shias in general, or withdraw into a corner’.”…

A former Mahdi Army commander in Baghdad, Abu Hazim, says, “Sadr is following a strategy called ‘bending before the wind’ because he’s lost part of his control over the Mahdi Army. It’s not like it was in 2004,” when an uprising called by the young radical threatened to engulf much of the country.

A U.S. embassy officer tells Newsweek Sadr’s problem is that the longer he lies low, the harder it will be to reestablish himself later. I made that point myself last week vis-a-vis the other Shiite groups, like SCIRI, who might seize the opportunity to supplant him as protectors of the Shiites. Captain Ed makes the same point today vis-a-vis the surge:

The lack of response from the Mahdis appears to be a long-term strategy. They must understand that if the Americans and Iraqis can hold these neighborhoods for a substantial period of time, their chances of reinfiltration become smaller and smaller. A population freed from terrorists and protection racketeers will not easily allow their return, and if the Nouri al-Maliki government can clean out the police forces of collaborators, they will find it much easier to repel terrorists later.

Allegiances will shift to whichever group can provide security. That’s how Sadr became an icon in the first place. If we can make things safe(r), we’ll wean some of them away from him, but I’m not sure how we do that if we’re working off a de facto timetable where most Iraqis expect us to be gone in a year with a pro-Sadr government still in place. Maybe that explains the maneuverings with Allawi — the best (only?) way to keep Sadr and his lieutenants from coming home and setting up shop would be to get rid of the leadership that let them run wild. And I’m sure Maliki knows that, which is probably why he’s been such a team player lately. I can’t believe Bush would withdraw and leave the country in his hands, so probably he’s sticking with him for now while the surge builds momentum and political support and then in a few months he’ll try to replace him. The trick is doing it before the surge builds so much support that Maliki benefits from it.

Meanwhile, Gen. Petraeus is trying to build morale by taking a stroll through Shorja market. The market’s been bombed five times since August; the last attack on February 12 killed dozens of people. In southern Iraq, where the British are drawing down, Iraqi and coalition troops discover evidence of torture and links to bomb attacks … at an Iraqi Interior Ministry intelligence center. The Brits are also reportedly set to announce that an RAF helicopter that was shot down over Basra last year was targeted with an Iranian-supplied missile, probably with the involvement of Iranian agents due to the level of skill needed to operate the weapon. And finally, Iraqslogger ponders the Sunni equivalent of America’s Maliki problem: sure, the tribal leaders are on our side so long as we’re paying them, but what’s going to happen when we leave and they turn into warlords?

Update: Also via Iraqslogger, Brian Williams is in Baghdad and says it’s a mixed bag — but he’s definitely noting some improvement. Click the image to watch.