Many respected commentators see hidden agendas at play in the Iraqi army assault on militias in Basra. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes that the “fighting, which the government portrays as a crackdown on criminality, is better seen as a power grab, an effort by Mr. Maliki and the most powerful Shiite political parties to establish their authority over Basra and the parts of Baghdad.”
Vali Nasr of Tufts University says “that [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki is completely irrelevant. The real show is between Hakim and Sadr.” That would be Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its militia, the Badr Organization, and Moqtada al-Sadr, head of the Sadr Trend and its militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi.
It is usually a safe bet to look for hidden motives in the morass of Iraqi politics, but in this case there is a danger of being overly sophisticated. The Iraqi army was ordered down to Basra by Maliki, not by Hakim or anyone else. The prime minister flew down himself to supervise its operations.
Whatever motives may lie behind his action (and what politician does not take politics into account when making any decision?), he has right on his side. Militias have been the bane of Iraq since 2003, and nowhere more so than in Basra, where the failure of British forces to keep the peace ceded control of this vital port to warring groups of thugs. Ordinary Iraqis are thoroughly sick of these desperados and anxious for their elected leaders to get rid of them. That is what Maliki has tried to do in Basra, and he should be applauded for his willingness to take on not just Sunni but also Shiite militias.
The problem is that the prime minister has proved singularly inept in prosecuting operation Knights’ Charge. He tried to repeat in Basra the success he enjoyed last August in confronting the Jaish al Mahdi in Karbala. Back then the Iraqi Security Forces defeated Mahdist gunmen and forced the volatile Sadr to declare a cease fire that was widely seen as a defeat for him. This time, the ceasefire does not look like a victory for the government, because its security forces failed to dislodge the Mahdists from their bastions in Basra. Worse, they triggered an Iranian-orchestrated counter-attack that resulted in heavy rocketing of the Green Zone in Baghdad as well as fighting in Sadr City, Hilla, and other Shiite enclaves.
There seemed to be little planning behind the Basra assault. The Iraqi army once again showed its willingness to fight, and it was impressive to see it shift a division’s worth of combat power to the south on short notice with minimal coalition help. The army and other security forces also managed to keep control of Karbala, Najaf, and other parts of the Shiite heartland where some Sadrists rose up. But the army was not given an opportunity to “prepare the battlefield” in Basra—a term of art for putting into place before the main assault everything from logistics and fire support to a persuasive message for the media.
Maliki’s worst failure was the lack of an “information operation” to get out his side of the story. Accordingly, what should have been seen as a long-overdue law-and-order campaign by the lawfully elected government has instead been depicted both inside and outside of Iraq in the cynical terms enunciated by Cordesman and Nasr. Maliki has received lukewarm support at best from his own coalition allies, including Hakim. Arab countries, which should be ecstatic that Iraq’s government is taking on Iranian-backed Shiite gangs, have been conspicuously silent.
Lacking political support and encountering a tougher than expected foe, the prime minister seems to be ceasing major combat operations. If so, that is the worst of all worlds: Having started a fight, it is imperative to finish it. By not doing more damage to the Sadrists, Maliki allows them to claim a victory. That is the same mistake the coalition made in fighting the Sadrists in 2004 and that Israel made in fighting Hezbollah (which has been training some of the Sadrists) in 2006. The situation in Iraq is made all the worse because it was an Iranian Quds Force general who finally brokered the ceasefire in Basra, thus reinforcing Iran's dominant role in the south.
Prior to this latest outbreak General David Petraeus had been pursuing a more subtle strategy. He has been working to incorporate the more moderate Sadrist elements into the political process while sending Iraqi and American Special Operations forces to capture or kill the ruthless Special Groups that are funded and directed from Tehran and that are largely outside of Sadr’s control. Maliki has upset that calculated campaign plan, leading mainstream Jaish al Mahdi elements to take up arms alongside the Special Groups. With the Basra offensive petering out, Petraeus should be able to get back to his more low-key approach.
It is doubtful, however, that it will be possible to gain control of Basra unless coalition troops are sent there to work with the Iraqis—something that is unlikely to happen because American force levels are falling and the British forces are unwilling to risk casualties.
While the recent fighting will be cited in our domestic politics to discredit the surge, it actually reinforces its rationale. The Iraqi government is starting to do the right thing—from passing reconciliation legislation to challenging militias. Its security forces are displaying more moxie. But they still do not have the ability to go it alone against the most ruthless, foreign-funded terrorists and militias. By retreating from the streets of Basra, the British allowed the situation to spin out of control. That is a mistake we should not repeat in the rest of the country.