Iraq's battle against militia groups this week may help to answer a critical question: whether Iraq's central government is taking charge — or whether it doesn't have the power to do so.
Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane was in the country as Iraq's military, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, prepared for an attack on militias in the southern city of Basra.
Keane, who serves as an adviser for his former colleagues, tells Steve Inskeep that he was impressed with the fact that al-Maliki wants to do something about the "sanctuary" that has developed in Basra, but he doesn't think the operation was put together as well as it could have been.
"What we have there is criminality and thuggery and different political factions using their power and influence at the expense of the people, and it's a deteriorating security situation, so he deserves credit for that. How well planned, prepared and coordinated this operation is ... I'm not sure," Keane says.
He says al-Maliki can be impulsive at times and may have jumped prematurely into the operation against radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
"What is he doing down in Basra himself, as the prime minister of an entire nation, unduly influencing commanders on the ground?" Keane asks. "That doesn't make any sense. He's a very impulsive person. I think that's what's happened here, and I think he's way out in front of what the military realities on the ground are."
There are 8,000 to 10,000 armed militia in the Basra area, Keane says, and conducting a comprehensive campaign "to bring that militia down to a situation where it's very stable for the people" would take weeks.
He says Iraq's military as a whole, although it has made significant progress, isn't ready to take on the security and stability situation in the country by itself.