Maliki's Midas Touch

In Baghdad's Sadr City today, once again, street vendors line the sidewalk with colorful shirts and shoes. Vegetable markets, once again, have fresh limes and produce. Family stores, once again, are back in business.

And in the local Ibn al Balad hospital, no more war wounds.

"There are no injured people in this hospital," says Jabber Shanshal, an Iraqi nurse, drawing a stark contrast with the situation more than two months ago, when heavy fighting took place in the Shiite suburb of almost three million people.

The residents of Sadr City have been longtime followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and his 60,000-strong Mahdi militia. He and his fighters staunchly oppose the U.S. military presence in Iraq and have frequently targeted U.S. troops across the country.

But all that has changed. Last week, al Sadr's representatives and the main Shiite political party here signed a cease-fire agreement.

And at sunrise on May 20, a legion of Iraqi soldiers cautiously marched into Sadr City. Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki had ordered the thousands of soldiers into the Shiite enclave as part of "Operation Peace." They were greeted with open arms.

"Now, we feel safe and stable," said Ayad Abbas, a Sadr City resident. "All the people of Sadr City want the rule of law … so, the army can enter" said another.

Normally unsure of the Mahdi army's volatility, Iraqi Army soldiers embraced their welcome.

"All of us are relatives and brothers. We are here to serve the people," said Salam Aaref, an Iraqi major.

The soldiers were heralded as heroes. And Maliki was seen as the strong leader he's frequently failed to be in the past — taking on the unpredictable Sadr and his Mahdi army.

But that wasn't always the case. A little context:

On Nov. 8, 2006, U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley wrote in an internal memo: "The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

Since Hadley's widely publicized opinions of Maliki, the prime minister has implemented a carefully planned strategy and precise public relations campaign.

Early this year, on Jan. 25, Maliki publicly announced his intentions to take on and finish off al Qaeda in Iraq in its last claimed stronghold — Mosul.

But after a couple of months of tough-talk about al Qaeda, he surprised many, including U.S. military commanders, when he decided to turn his attention to Basra.

Basra had erupted into a Shiite-on-Shiite power struggle, and as long as Maliki ignored the evident instability in the South, whispered doubts flourished about his dedication to national unity. Maliki was still struggling with many Sunnis and Kurds over his willingness to tackle Shiite troubles and in-fighting.

On March 23, Maliki launched Operation Knight's Assault, in Basra. Thousands of soldiers stormed the southern Shiite bastion, specifically targeting Muqtada al Sadr and his army.

The early stages of the operation were shaky at best — 1,000 soldiers deserted ranks as they refused to fight against their brethren in the Mahdi army.

At congressional hearings in April, Gen. David Petraeus said, regarding Knight's Assault, "There's no question but that it could have been better planned and that the preparations could have been better."

But as Maliki bore the brunt of international backlash over the execution of the operation, he stood his ground.

And although many of the Shiite fighters melted into the streets, a little over a month later, the city is being called the "new city of hope." Not perfect by any means, but there are steady reports of businesses reopening, women cautiously baring skin and life being somewhat manageable. Success.

The Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites alike all eventually lauded the Basra operation as a huge success and whole-heartedly backed Maliki in his next endeavor — to revisit Mosul, and take on al Qaeda.

On May 9, late at night, we received word of an indefinite curfew in all of Nineva province. The next day, on May 10, Operation Lion's Roar surged ahead.

Acutely aware of his political momentum, on May 12, Maliki, accompanied by crews from Al Iraqia TV, the official state-run media outlet — went to Mosul — and Maliki personally, and publicly, took charge of the military operations there.

He was the lead story and plastered across almost every local front page.

In the first five days of Operation Lion's Roar, more than 500 terrorists and militants had been reportedly captured. Success. This time, with the Sunnis and Kurds behind him.

Then one week ago, on May 20, 10,000 Iraqi Army soldiers, backed by tanks (and U.S. air support), strolled into Sadr City. Not a single bullet was fired and there haven't been any gunfights, airstrikes or rockets launched into, or out of, Sadr City since.

(Two days earlier, the Iraqi Army quietly went into Sadr City and met with Sadr officials to coordinate the military operation in the city. After the meeting, they quietly left the city to return to their position on the outskirts.)

Now, U.S. military officers believe there was a contributing element of fatigue — Sadr City residents were fed up. Tired of being trapped in their homes amid a daily routine of airstrikes, gunfights and roadblocks, their lives had effectively come to a standstill.

Nevertheless, today, both Maliki and Sadr seem to be on the verge of declaring victory in the eastern Baghdad slum.

Sadr is trying to grasp on to a sliver of political leverage, claiming to have struck the deal which brought his people their livelihoods back. While Maliki is lauding the latest in a series of successes to ensure security and a regained national unity to his country.

Certainly, it seems as though there is little Maliki can do wrong these days. With provincial elections around the corner, an Iraqi future without Maliki is almost impossible to imagine.