Anthony Cordesman on the stakes in the current fighting, which he remarks "is as much a power struggle for control of the south, and the Shi'ite parts of Baghdad and the rest of the country, as an effort to establish central government authority and legitimate rule."

The US teams we talked to also made it clear that these appointments by the central government had no real popular base. If local and provincial elections were held with open lists, it was likely that ISCI and Dawa would lose most elections because they are seen as having failed to bring development and government services.

Basically, we're helping ISCI and Dawa use force in the south to lay the groundwork for them to hold onto power that they would otherwise lose at the ballot box. For more, check out this telling post at the counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawama which starts out by saying "You know who was cool? The Jam. What a great band. You know who isn't cool? JAM -- Jaish al-Mahdi. Those guys pretty much suck." But then by the end it says:

Why, some wonder, is the U.S. closer to the Iran-backed ISCI and Badr Brigades than it is with the Sadrites? Why does this make sense? Two Baghdad political veterans have ruefully pointed out to Abu Muqawama that while Sadr has more popular support, the ISCI crowd have something more valuable: they speak English. One former State Department veteran with whom Abu Muqawama spoke a few months ago pointed out that former Iraq honcho Meghan O'Sullivan was particularly vulnerable to falling under the sway of those politicians who didn't just speak in that confusing gutteral language where they write from right to left in co-joined letters. Ergo: they speak English, so they must be our friends! Hoo-ray, democracy!

It's always worth recalling that one major problem with U.S. efforts to micromanage political outcomes in foreign countries is that it tends to be way easier for Iraqi (or Pakistani, etc.) political actors to manipulate our leaders than it is for our leaders to manipulate political actors in foreign countries. Americans have more levers -- more money, more guns, more power -- but foreigners have a much better understanding of what's happening.