THE MONTH OF May saw the lowest US casualties in Iraq since early 2004. But counterinsurgencies are not won on points, otherwise Algeria would be part of France and South Vietnam would be an independent country. Progress in Iraq can only be judged by a close examination of political trends, indeed of whether the US strategy in Iraq is producing a political accord among the key factions that will permit the emergence of a legitimate, stable government. Here the news is mixed.
The key decision-makers on the ground, General David Petraeus and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, have had a great deal of latitude in interpreting how to achieve President Bush's stated goal - a democratic Iraq that can defend itself, administer itself, and become an important ally in the war on terror.
Though their strategy has been obscure, it now seems clear. A strong central state is no longer in the cards. Kurds do not want it; Sunnis want it only if they can run it; and Shi'ites disagree violently among themselves, with the Supreme Council, which is aligned with the government of Nouri al-Maliki, against a strong central state and Moqtada al-Sadr for it.
The United States supports a central state with only limited powers, and the diffusion of resources and political and administrative authority to the provinces. Kurds and the Shi'ite Supreme Council concur. The United States hopes to induce the Sunni Arabs to agree by showing them that they can fare well in such a situation. Many Sunni Arabs have recently sided with the United States, but few observers believe they have yet signed on with the current Iraqi government. They are waiting for the United States and the Iraqi government to deliver wealth and power to them.
The provincial elections announced in March and scheduled for October are a key step in providing power to the Sunni Arabs. Once they begin to exercise that power, the hope is that they will become supporters of the new political system. With Kurds, most Sunni Arabs, and a significant percentage of the Shi'ite population on board, die-hard centralizers such as Sadr and spoilers such as Al Qaeda in Iraq could perhaps be marginalized, and remaining violent resistance would be smothered. There is a good chance, however, that the plan will not get off the ground.
Success depends first on the Supreme Council's ability to defeat the Sadrists in the elections across the Shi'ite majority areas of southern Iraq. If the Sadrists win, and there is a good chance they can, then it will show that decentralization has no strong constituency in the Shia community. When government forces attacked in Basra in March it was almost surely out of fear of the growth of Sadrist power. Reports from Iraq in the preceding months had been suggesting that the popularity of the Sadrists was increasing, and that of the Supreme Council, which now controls many provincial governments, was waning.
Maliki and the Supreme Council, with the help of the United States, deliberately chose to substitute bullets for ballots, because they feared that the elections would go against them and put the entire political strategy in jeopardy. Though the recent fighting was portrayed as a struggle against illegal armed militias, only the Sadrist Mehdi Army seems to have been targeted. A new operation was launched Sunday against another Sadrist stronghold in southern Iraq, the provincial capital of Amara in Maysan Province.
The Maliki government, supported by the United States, may have believed that the recent round of fighting would erode Sadr's political support and election prospects. We do not know why they believed it but the following reasons seem plausible.
First, the Mehdi army was making a lot of money illegally in Basra. Money is a useful political tool - suppressing the Mehdi army in Basra helps limit its funds.
Second, the Shia public dislikes open internecine fighting. In last autumn's fighting, the Sadrists were blamed, temporarily weakening their political appeal, which caused them to agree to a cease-fire. Maliki and the United States have worked hard to cast the Sadrists as the villains of the recent fighting in Basra and Baghdad, and Sadr probably ordered his forces to stand down again because of the fear that public opinion might go against him, especially if there was an intense battle in Sadr City.
Finally, the Maliki government has tried to include a provision in the election law banning any party with a militia from participating in the provincial elections. The attacks on the Mehdi Army were a way of highlighting its continued existence as an armed force, setting the stage for banning the Sadrists from the elections. This provision has not been directed toward other parties that maintain militias, including Maliki's allies.
Sadr has recently announced two alternative tactics to evade the election ban. He is formally separating his armed militia, the Mehdi Army, from the political activities of his movement, which could leave his movement within the letter of the new election law. The Sadrists have also announced plans to compete in the elections as individuals, rather than under the banner of the Sadrist movement, if the movement is banned.
It is difficult to tell how the provincial elections will go. The Sadrists may do well, especially if Shi'ite Arab voters see them as victims of a Maliki/Supreme Council/US conspiracy. If the Sadrists can capture control of some provinces, Sadr will garner resources that will further increase his power and permit him to do even better in the next national elections. With more votes in the parliament, he can oppose the further decentralization of power in Iraq. The scheme to win over the Sunni Arabs will have failed.
Predictions about the likely course of politics and violence in Iraq are difficult; there are too many variables. A focus on the provincial elections illuminates two possible paths.
If the Sadrists do well, then the current US scheme for reconciling Shi'ite and Sunni will likely run out of steam. At least some Sunnis who have rallied to the United States will switch sides again and violence will likely intensify. This development will favor those who wish to withdraw US troops from Iraq as quickly as is feasible.
If Maliki and the Supreme Council do well, and the Sunni simultaneously win power in some provinces, then those favoring a continued, if diminishing, US military presence can argue that the recent reduction in violence is now leading to the promised political reconciliation.
If the provincial elections produce a murky draw, however, the next president will have to substitute his own judgment for the ambiguous facts on the ground.
Barry R. Posen is a professor of political science at MIT and director of the MIT Security Studies Program.