Simply brutal. Some of our commenters are already crapping on it in headlines but one of the authors is Damien Cave, who was last seen breaking Bill Maher’s heart and of whom InstaGlenn has said, “I’ve known Damien Cave since long before the InstaPundit days, and he’s an honest reporter.” It’s a long piece but read at least the first half dealing with the Mahdi Army’s ascendance as a “shadow government.” Sample quote from an officer with whom MM and Bryan are personally acquainted from their time at FOB Falcon earlier this year:

Lt. Col. Steven M. Miska, deputy commander of a brigade of the First Infantry Division that is charged with controlling northwest Baghdad, said, “We’ve done everything we can militarily.”

He said, “I think we have essentially stalled the sectarian conflict without addressing the underlying grievances.”

A recent American report concluded that Mahdi Army leaders in Shula enjoy “freedom of movement” in part “because of a lack of permanent CF presence,” referring to coalition forces.

Colonel Miska, Captain Feese’s commander, who oversees Shula, Huriya and other Shiite-dominant areas, said that units regularly entered the neighborhood for raids, which had killed or captured many prominent Mahdi fighters. But, he said, referring to joint security stations, “We do not have a J.S.S. in Shula, due to lack of combat power.”

The boldface part sums up the dilemma: if they’re not making things better but they are keeping things from getting worse, is that in itself enough of a justification to keep troops there long term? More:

Abu Sajat, one of several Mahdi leaders known to Captain Feese’s unit, claims to command several hundred fighters in Huriya, Washash, Iskan and Topchi, a cluster of middle- and working-class areas that have become increasingly violent, and more Shiite, in recent months. He showed up wearing a brown shirt unbuttoned to his sternum, dark sunglasses and brown polyester pants with a belt that had missed several loops toward the back.

Pulling his belt over a sizable stomach, he bragged that they were playing a game of cat and mouse with the Americans in which the Mahdi Army always has more men, more loyalty among Baghdad’s residents and more freedom of movement. Huriya, he said, was stable because the Sunnis were gone, not because the Americans had arrived.

“They can’t break up our organization,” he said. “If you count all the Americans in Iraq, they are really just prisoners.”

A new report from the U.S. Institute of Peace calls, predictably, for a total withdrawal — but, unpredictably, over the course of five years. Bush will get some mileage from that, as well as from this companion piece to the Cave article in the Times by Michael Gordon noting some progress in reducing the amount of sectarian killings. Even Iraq Body Count agrees that the violence is decreasing, albeit not enough and for complicated reasons.

I’ll leave you on a hopeful note with Bill Ardolino’s first photo essay from Fallujah, where the locals continue to sign up with the military to fight AQ. Quote:

“Now we start to know what is right and what is wrong,” said another recruit. “The picture is so clear now. When things started and the [initial] invasion came to Fallujah, we said, ‘It’s OK for civilians to [take up arms] and fight the invasion and throw [the Americans] out from Fallujah.’ We said, ‘OK, they are the enemy and that’s our friend.’ But things were confused, and the enemy has become the friend and the friend became the enemy.”

Read the very last few paragraphs of the Cave piece if you want the flip side of that.