Monday, March 31, 2008

Basra And Beyond

By Cernig

There are a couple of worth-a-reads on the situation in Iraq today. I particularly recommend James Joyner:

The parallels between this action and the Israeli’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon to take on Hezbollah are striking. In both cases, the party that initiated the escalation into high level conflict inflicted substantial damage on their adversary and were able to claim military victory. At the same time, neither came anywhere close to achieving their political objectives. In assessing the 2006 action, I concluded that Israel therefore lost. Absent substantial new information, I’d have to conclude that Maliki was the loser here for the same reason.
While Kevin Drum, in two posts, draws attention to the Iranian connection. Following reports that senior Iraqi government negotiators were asking the Iranians to intercede with Sadr on Maliki's behalf even as Maliki was spouting his "never retreat, never surrender" rhetoric and claiming that the Sadrists were worse than Al Qaeda, Kevin writes:
the head of the Badr Organization sure does seem to have, um, remarkably speedy access to the head of Iran's Qods force, doesn't he? It's something to ponder the next time some Bush administration or U.S. Army spokesperson casually maligns Sadr as "Iranian backed" but maintains a discreet silence when it comes to the far deeper and longer-lived Iranian ties of Maliki's own Dawa/Badr alliance. Just sayin'.
and also gives his opinion on the winners and losers.
it was Maliki who went to Sadr, not the other way around, and that he did it several days ago. What's more, it was Sadr who laid down the conditions for an end to the violence, not Maliki. This is pretty plainly at odds with the theory that Sadr's statement was a show of weakness, a sign that he was taking more damage than he could stand and was desperate for a truce.

In urban warfare like this it's frequently hard to figure out who's "won" and who's "lost." Often both sides lose. In this case, though, it certainly looks as if Maliki has lost more than Sadr. Both sides have taken casualties, but Sadr doesn't appear to have lost any ground; he's forced Maliki to come to him to ask for terms; he's successfully projected a statesmanlike image throughout; and politically he seems to be in stronger shape than before. Maliki, conversely, appears by all accounts to have launched an ill-timed mission with inadequate troops and then been unable to close the deal. The Iraqi army and the redoubtable Gen. Mohan al-Furayji, the much lauded leader of the regular forces in Basra, are both looking pretty banged up in the bargain too.

This could all change tomorrow, but right now that's about where we stand. It's increasingly hard to see how the Basra offensive ends up being a plus for Maliki and his allies. Including us, unfortunately.
But looking beyond Basra today, it's Anthony Cordesman that provides the "must read".
Much of the reporting on this fighting in Basra and Baghdad — which was initiated by the Iraqi government — assumes that Mr. Sadr and his militia are the bad guys who are out to spoil the peace, and that the government forces are the legitimate side trying to bring order. This is a dangerous oversimplification, and one that the United States needs to be far more careful about endorsing.

There is no question that many elements of the Mahdi Army have been guilty of sectarian cleansing, that the Sadr movement is hostile to the United States, that some of its extremists have continued acts of violence in spite of the cease-fire Mr. Sadr declared last summer, and that some of these rogue elements have ties to Iran. No one should romanticize the Sadr movement, understate the risks it presents or ignore the violent radicals in the Mahdi Army.

But it is equally important not to romanticize Mr. Maliki, the Dawa Party or the Islamic Supreme Council. The current 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 that have eluded their grasp.

Moreover, Mr. Maliki’s gamble has already dragged American forces part-way into the fight, including airstrikes in Basra. Striking at violent, rogue elements in the Mahdi Army is one thing, but engaging the entire Sadr movement is quite another. The official cease-fire that has kept the mainstream Mahdi Army from engaging government and United States forces may well be rescinded if the government’s assault continues.

This looming power struggle was all too clear when I was in Iraq last month. The Supreme Council was the power behind the Shiite governorates in the south and was steadily expanding its influence over the Iraqi police. It was clearly positioning itself to counter Mr. Sadr’s popular support and preparing for the provincial elections scheduled for Oct. 1.

American military and civilian officials were candid in telling me that the governors and other local officials installed by the central government in Basra and elsewhere in southern Iraq had no popular base. If open local and provincial elections were held, they said, Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council were likely to be routed because they were seen as having failed to bring development and government services.
He calls the situation "a civil war Iraq can't win" - and if the Iraqi people, as opposed to the power-players, won't be winners then you can be pretty certain that the US occupation isn't going to come out ahead either.

So far, it appears that the widespread open Shiite civil war that it looked like Maliki had begun is again on the backburner - for now - but Cordesman's analysis of the situation still provides the underlying warp and weft going forward into regional elections. That underlying power struggle will find its expression somehow, somewhere. My guess is that, having tried and failed to harness the power of the State to impose their own rule, the Dawa and SIIC parties will now turn to militias and ballot-rigging to try to salvage their positions before the regional elections. That in itself might well re-ignite violence on a larger scale but what is certain is that there's no defusing this slow-burn civil war.

Cordesman also notes the other two main currents in Iraq which could also flare into violence:
One is that the Sunni tribes and militias that have been cooperating with the Americans could turn against the central government. The second is that the struggle among Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and other ethnic groups to control territory in the north could lead to fighting in Kirkuk, Mosul or other areas.
and while everyone has had their attention on the South, it's worth noting Walter Pincus in the WaPo who has kept watching the Sunni "Awakening" and writes that the US is increasingly uncertain about the future of the "Sons of Iraq".
At a Pentagon briefing last Wednesday, the commander of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Diyala province, Col. Jon Lehr, told reporters via videoconference that the Sons of Iraq "are not a permanent security solution," although, he added, "they have been an integral part of our strategy."

...as Lehr put it last week, "not all Sons of Iraq are created equally." In Diyala, the local Sons of Iraq groups have split in two. "One is a tribally based," he said. "They tend to be associated with rural areas . . . [and] are there to protect their villages. " The other half, which he described as "the politically based ones," are in Baqubah, the province's main city of about 300,000, which less than a year ago was considered an al-Qaeda-driven battleground.

Baqubah's Sons of Iraq came from the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade, which earlier had been responsible not only for killing American soldiers but also for kidnapping a U.S. Marine. Others are from Hamas in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent faction that had broken away from the 1920s Brigade. And there are also some from mujaheddin made up of former Saddam Hussein loyalists.
That divide isn't getting much attention in op-ed columns - just as trhe Shiite divide didn't until it exploded in open conflict. And US officers seem divided on the future of the Awakening going forward too.
The question now is what happens to the Sons of Iraq in the long run. "They were a means to an end," Lehr said. "So what we're attempting to do right now is find employment for the men." He said some could be absorbed into Iraqi security forces -- primarily the police and some in the army.

But Gen. David H. Petraeus, interviewed on National Public Radio on March 19, the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion, was more cautious. "There are understandable concerns on the part of a government that is majority Shiite that, what they [would be] doing was hiring former Sunni insurgents, giving them a new lease on life, and that when this is all said and done they may turn against the government or the Shiite population," he said.

Col. Michael Fuller, chief of staff of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, gave a different view during a Pentagon news conference Thursday. "Many of them are not qualified physically to join the Iraqi security forces because they're old, they're infirmed -- whatever the case may be." Nonetheless, he said he expects the Baghdad government to incorporate about 20 percent of them into the Iraqi security forces over time.

For the rest, said Fuller, whose job is to help the Iraq Defense and Interior ministries develop their forces, the government is "looking at programs much like our vo-tech schools, to get them trained . . . [so] they have a viable employment alternative that will keep them off the streets and out of criminal activities, if that's all they feel like they've got to fall back on."

"Conceptually," he added, the government of Iraq has agreed to begin picking up the costs associated with the Sons of Iraq. "We've just got to make sure that we have the conditions set to make sure they do it successfully and it doesn't become something that causes the Sons of Iraq to quit what they're doing," he said.

Petraeus, however, had the final word. In the end, he said, the Sons of Iraq would stay loyal to the course the United States has set "as long as it is in their interests."
Does anyone actually believe that the leaders of the "political" and "tribal" currents of the Awakening will regard having their forces cut to a fifth of their present strength, while the rest become street-sweepers and mechanics, will be in their own interests - especially given the evidence this last week that Maliki and his allies are quite willing to co-opt State military force to attempt to further theirs? Well, maybe some of the US cheerleading set do - but the rest of us should be looking for yet another explosive fracture at some stage in the future.