The aptly named Ambassador CROCK-er

…has issued some rosy forecasts for total pie in the Iraqi sky. Behold:

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq said Saturday that al-Qaida’s network in the country has never been closer to defeat, and he praised Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his moves to rein in Shiite and Sunni militant groups.

Ryan Crocker’s comments came as Iraqi forces have been conducting crackdowns on al-Qaida militants in the northern city of Mosul and on Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra. Thousands of Iraqi forces also moved into the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad last week imposing control for the first time in years.

But truces with the powerful Mahdi Army militia that have calmed violence in Basra and paved the way for the Sadr City deployment have been strained in the past two days.

Now, there are a couple of crocks at work here. First of all, the Shiite militias, including the Mahdi Army and Badr brigades, may be Islamist militants, but they are NOT al-Quaida, nor are they affiliated with the so-called al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Q are Sunnis, or more specifically, Wahhabis with a fundamentalist belief system so extreme that mainstream Sunnis rightly frown on them, particularly since they are imported from Saudi Arabia, not homegrown. And the Shiite militias are all existing Iraqi factions unleashed by the downfall of the secularist Saddam Hussein regime. Ambassador Crocker neatly glosses over all this.

Supporters of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads the Mahdi Army, accused al-Maliki on Saturday of seeking to eliminate their movement and warned that “dark clouds” hang over the truce.

Uh oh. That means defeat is NOT so imminent after all. Score one more against Ryan Crocker.

Al-Qaida fighters or other Sunni insurgents struck back in Mosul on Saturday. A roadside bomb in the city’s Sumer neighborhood hit an Iraqi army patrol, destroying a vehicle and killing four soldiers, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Near Baqouba — where a U.S. offensive last year targeted al-Qaida in Iraq — gunmen assassinated a member of the local Awakening Council, a U.S.-backed group of Sunni tribesmen who are fighting al-Qaida. The attack occurred in the village of Had, north of Baghdad, police said.

“…or other Sunni insurgents”. Nice vague language there on the part of the reporter. But those who care for clarity, not vagueness, will note that THIS passage doesn’t exactly signal defeat for Islamist forces in Iraq, either.

By the way, who authorizes police to speak to the media? Don’t count on it being totally up to the local authorities. They’re not exactly independent, as the size and fortification of the US embassy compound should make clear.

U.S Ambassador Crocker spoke as he visited reconstruction projects in the southern city of Najaf.

“There is important progress for the Iraqi forces in confronting the Sunni and Shiite militias,” he said, speaking Arabic to reporters. “The government, the prime minister are showing a clear determination to take on extremist armed elements that challenge the government’s authority … no matter who these elements are.”

“You are not going to hear me say that al-Qaida is defeated, but they’ve never been closer to defeat than they are now,” Crocker said.

Nice bit of hedging there, Ambassador. Unfortunately, it’s still another big fat CROCK-er. And “never been closer to defeat than now” doesn’t mean much if they are only a hair closer to it than yesterday. There is still a yawning distance there.

The U.S. military says attacks have dropped dramatically — down to an average of 41 a day across the country, the lowest rate since 2004 — amid the crackdowns and truces. The U.S. military, backed by Sunni Arab tribal fighters, have scored successes in battling al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents in western parts of the country.

Oooooooooo, only 41 attacks a day. Yeah, that’s progress. BTW, the chocolate ration this week is 30 grams, up from 50 last week. Don’t you love Big Brother?

The Mosul sweep aims to dislodge the terror network from its most prominent remaining urban stronghold. The operation has met little opposition, suggesting that many al-Qaida militants fled, intending to regroup elsewhere as they have in past crackdowns.

Closer to defeat? When they’ve only abandoned one place to resurface in another? Um, yeah. Wake me up when you’ve actually got a body count, eh?

In Baghdad, three men attending a conference at the offices of the National Dialogue Front, a leading Sunni Arab political party, were killed when a bomb exploded under their car as they left the gathering, police said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

Again, note the anonymous, unauthorized police. Who is muzzling them? I thought freedom (of speech and otherwise) was supposed to be on the march over there!

Meanwhile, new tensions over the truces in Sadr City and Basra were sparked when Iraqi troops in Basra fired over the heads of al-Sadr followers congregating in a northern square for Friday prayers. Iraqi police recently banned al-Sadr gatherings there after a large cache of weapons was found nearby.

Iraqi troops were deployed and when those gathering refused to disperse, the police fired rounds over their heads, witnesses said.

Iraqi police in Basra said one person was wounded, but al-Sadr officials contended that one person was killed.

And then we wonder why the truce is so shaky. Shooting at them? Yeah, that sounds like a terrific move. Nothing like a little antagonism to keep that trucey feeling going!

Also Friday, Iraqi and U.S. troops carried out a sweep in two Mahdi Army strongholds of western Baghdad, the Amil and Bayaa districts, arresting around 100 people, police officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

Again–note unauthorized police. In whose interest is it to keep them silent?

Iraqi forces in the operation cordoned off a cultural center in Amil where Sadrists were gathering to hold prayers and arrested some worshippers, the officials said.

Sadrist lawmakers denounced the moves saying there was a “nationwide conspiracy against Friday prayers” and a government move to “eliminate” their movement.

It’s hard not to concede they have a point. Between the shootings and the raids, you really have to wonder. What kind of Muslim does that to his co-religionists while they are praying? Is prayer time not sacred in Iraq anymore? Or is it just not sacred if you’re not in the same corner with a certain oil-thirsty invading force?

Sadrist lawmaker, Aqeel Abdul-Rahman, said the group was still committed to Sadr City truce. “But we see black clouds on the horizon, being brought by the government to rain on the sons of the Sadr Movement,” he said.

The Sadrists’ angry rhetoric may in part be aimed at warning al-Maliki not to take more aggressive steps against the Mahdi Army in Sadr City, such as confiscating heavy weapons or arresting key figures. The government has said it plans to do so, but has not begun any raids in the district, wary of sparking retaliation.

Looks to me like the Sadrists are more committed to holding up their end of the bargain than you-know-who.

Of course, I can just see Crocker and Co. pushing for harsher actions in spite of everything, so BushCo can go out with a bang in an election year and not be known for all time as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

If I were Mr. Crocker, I’d leave the diplomatic corps and join a PR firm. He’s obviously better at spinning than he is at diplomacy.

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