That this question can still be asked illustrates why things are going south for the United States in Iraq:
Why is Moqtada al-Sadr still alive?
On Wednesday, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, held a news conference. That afternoon, so did President Bush. At both, the U.S. officials announced the Iraqi government has agreed to a series of "benchmarks" for progress in Iraq, and a timetable for accomplishing them. Chief among them is disarming the sectarian militias that currently are responsible for most of the bloodshed.
Later that afternoon, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki denied that he'd agreed to benchmarks, declared he wouldn't be bound by any timetable and denounced the attempted arrest earlier in the day of a Shiite death squad leader in Baghdad (although he and Mr. Khalilzad issued a statement yesterday claiming they had resolved their differences.)
The death squad leader is a big shot in Mr. Sadr's Mahdi army, which last weekend attacked Iraqi police in the southern cities of Amarah and Suwayra.
Moqtada al-Sadr is a creature of Iran, which funds his militia. Twice before (in April and August of 2004) he ordered uprisings against U.S. troops. At the time, there was a warrant out for his arrest for the murder of moderate Shiite cleric Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was gunned down by Mahdi army members in April, 2003.
Mr. Sadr has the blood of dozens of Americans and thousands of Iraqis on his hands. There is evidence he has been coordinating with al-Qaida.
Yet Mr. Sadr is not dead. He is not in prison. He is in the government. And people wonder why U.S. policy in Iraq is failing.
Victory depends less on sending more soldiers to Iraq than on permitting the ones who are there to kill our enemies.
In April of 2004, when we should have killed Mr. Sadr, he was not a very popular figure among Iraq's Shiites. Now he's the most powerful figure in Iraq, eclipsing the more-or-less moderate Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
"In Shiite areas, the militias hold the real control of the city," e-mailed an Army sergeant in a Baghdad intelligence unit to The Wall Street Journal's Jim Taranto. "They have infiltrated, co-opted or intimidated into submission the local police. They are expanding their territories, restricting freedom of movement for Sunnis, forcing mass migrations, spiking ethnic tensions . . . all the while U.S. forces do nothing."
Two years ago, the Sadr cancer could have been excised with relative ease. But it wasn't. Now it has metastasized. Yet still we hesitate to apply the necessary treatment.
So why is the Moqtada al-Sadr still alive?
When Coalition Provisional Authority chairman Paul Bremer issued an arrest warrant for al Sadr in April of 2004, we were dissuaded from serving it by Iraqi politicians and clerics who claimed they could "control" him. Now he's controlling them.
Whenever we've attempted to apply a political "solution" to what is essentially a military problem, bad things have happened. An example is when we broke off the first battle of Fallujah in May of 2004 at the insistence of those Sunni leaders (more or less) supporting the government. This handed al-Qaida a major (though fortunately only a temporary) victory.
We hesitate to act decisively against Mr. Sadr in order to preserve the facade of Iraqi democracy and sovereignty, even though Mr. Maliki's hapless government wouldn't last a week if U.S. troops withdrew.
To maintain this fiction, we won't take actions Mr. Maliki doesn't approve of. But he depends upon the 28 votes Mr. Sadr controls in the Iraqi parliament in order to maintain his tenuous grasp on power. Prodding from the United States has so far been insufficient to get him to give them up. Mr. Maliki has declared which side he's on, and it isn't ours.
If we act against Mr. Sadr, there will be an uprising. It will be bloody. But continued inaction pretty much guarantees slow motion defeat.
"If we continue on as is in Iraq, we will leave here (sooner or later) with a fractured state, a Rwanda-waiting-to-happen," wrote the Army intel sergeant in his e-mail to Jim Taranto.
To act against Mr. Sadr, we'll either have to brush aside Mr. Maliki's objections, or engineer his downfall. It will be embarrassing for President Bush to admit the failure of the Iraqi government, and he'll be accused of acting imperiously. But better Mr. Bush eat some crow than that American soldiers eat more lead.
Mr. Bush says we can't afford to lose in Iraq. I agree. So when will he do what it takes to win?