Thu May 31, 6:28 AM ET
In January, when President Bush announced a surge of more than 20,000 American troops into Iraq, the aim was to give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki more time and calm to start governing the violence-wracked nation.
So far, the surge has produced higher U.S. casualties but little sign that the ineffectual Maliki government is willing or able to assert authority.
In fact, Maliki isn't even the most influential public figure in Iraq. That distinction probably belongs to Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric who re-emerged from months in hiding Friday.
Thousands cheered and chanted as al-Sadr called for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops: "No, no to America! No, no to colonialism! No, no to Israel! No, no to Satan!"
The display ought to be a wake-up call. Not to get rid of al-Sadr, but to find ways to work with him and other influential players, including tribal and Sunni insurgency leaders, outside the Iraqi government.
Distasteful as that might seem, al-Sadr's aims are not entirely against U.S. interests. He opposes Iranian domination. He wants Iraq to remain unified. He has a large bloc of representatives in Iraq's parliament (though he recently withdrew his six ministers from the government, giving himself more room to maneuver independently). And he is reaching out to Sunni leaders.
U.S. policy toward al-Sadr has lurched in different directions. Early on, he was on a hit list. The troop surge is aimed, in part, at purging his worst militias. Quite possibly, the United States was helping rid him of militia members he could no longer control as he went into hiding. He has considerable sway over Maliki, who owes his power to al-Sadr's support.
How to deal with al-Sadr is hardly self-evident. One suggestion from the International Crisis Group, a think tank with experts across the Middle East, is to convene meetings of al-Sadr, other influential figures and officials from surrounding countries to brainstorm the way forward.
The hard truth is that Washington has few realistic choices. Its influence is dwindling as the sectarian violence rises. U.S. visions of a multiethnic, representative democracy in Baghdad look like a mirage.
While the surge of troops might be able to prevent all-out civil war, the cost is high: April and May combined were the deadliest two months for U.S. forces since the war began. At this point, the best the United States can hope for is to leave behind a relatively stable country that isn't a base for al-Qaeda.
Even achieving those limited aims will require dealing with unsavory but powerful characters such as al-Sadr, instead of pretending that the dysfunctional Maliki government alone is capable of delivering.