U.S. to move Petraeus from Iraq to NATO?

An unhappy prospect, the converse of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If it’s being fixed, why break it again? The Times guesses this is aimed at guaranteeing Petraeus a hand in the next administration, which jibes with Bush’s strategy of binding his successor in certain important military matters. I wonder, though, if it doesn’t suggest they’re more worried at this point about Afghanistan than Iraq, especially as things get freakier across the border in Pakistan. The Pentagon’s already known to be mulling an “awakening”-type strategy there of flipping tribesmen to fight the resident jihadis. Why not have a guy in charge who’s practiced at it?

But then, what do you lose in Iraq?

General Petraeus “should stay at least through this year,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We really need military continuity in command during this period in which we can find out whether we can transition from tactical victory to some form of political accommodation.

“We have in Petraeus and Crocker the first effective civil-military partners we have had in this war,” Mr. Cordesman added, referring to Ryan C. Crocker, the United States ambassador in Baghdad. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., General Petraeus’s predecessor, served nearly three years in the top Iraq job before becoming Army chief of staff.

Further to Cordesman’s point, read this Newsweek piece about Petraeus’s outreach to the Mahdi Army. Some of it will make you cringe, like his insistence on referring to Sadr with the honorific “sayyid,” but results are results; uproot Petraeus and who knows how much of the detente you take with him. Meanwhile, the question is whether legitimizing Sadr this way isn’t helping to make him a long-term player in Iraq. The answer, I guess, is that the country needs a breather and anything that can be done to purchase stability at the moment is a good purchase. Iraq’s breather is our breather — but it’s Sadr’s breather too.

U.S. commanders are engaged in talks with the Shiite militants for the first time since 2003. In public statements the Americans are careful to distinguish between the “special groups” trained and funded by Iran—who are accused of the bulk of Shiite attacks on U.S. forces—and the Sadrist mainstream. “We thought that it would be important that we respect [Sadr’s] decision to, fairly courageously, declare the ceasefire,” Petraeus said in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK. In some Baghdad neighborhoods, the Americans are even paying Mahdi fighters to help keep the peace. Officially, the Sadrists deny any dialogue with Americans; a senior cleric says talks are a “red line” the movement wouldn’t cross. But Petraeus says he is in regular contact with a “senior Sadr political official.” Some of his ground commanders exchange text messages with counterparts in the Mahdi Army…

The hope is that this kind of bottomup reconciliation will push senior Sadrist leaders toward moderation, too. (A senior Sadr aide, Ahmed Shaybani, was arrested by the Americans and released by Petraeus last spring. Petraeus says he is now the head of the Mahdi Army.) But things could just as well turn out badly. If Sadr achieves the rank of ayatollah, he will be a heavyweight political, as well as religious, authority—and he’ll have a leaner, more loyal militia at his disposal. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has drawn comparisons between Sadr’s movement and Hizbullah, which does not bode well for long-term stability.

Roggio notes a report this weekend of yet another threat by the Sadrists to rescind the ceasefire and turn the Mahdi Army loose again, but this time with some teeth: They’re complaining now of Iraqi forces targeting them, possibly at the government’s behest and possibly at the behest of one of the rival Shiite militias with which many of those troops are allied. I wonder which way that cuts vis-a-vis replacing Petraeus. You don’t want discontinuity at the top if fighting suddenly breaks out but it may be that one of his possible successors, like special ops honcho Stanley McChrystal, might be better for that sort of hot war than a “cold war” counterinsurgency specialist like Petraeus would be. Any thoughts from our military readers?

I leave you with this fascinating read about the other enemy in Iraq. Go figure: “Based on the Sinjar records, U.S. military officials in Iraq said they now think that nine out of 10 suicide bombers have been foreigners, compared with earlier estimates of 75 percent. Similarly, they assess that 90 percent of foreign fighters entering Iraq during the one-year period ending in August came via Syria, a greater proportion than previously believed.” Any guesses where most of those bombers are from?