Saturday, March 29, 2008

Basra Blowback

By Cernig

Well, just recently people on the Right were asking why Iraq was off the front pages "now that there's only good news". I bet they wish they'd not tempted fate. They didn't really listen to Petraeus and others who said that the lull in violence could so very easily be a transient one and that the transience was caused by various currents of non-reconciliation upon which the "window" was almost closed.

Now, with Nour al-Maliki playing Napoleon in Basra, alongside his brother-in-law general, stability in Iraq is unravelling with remarkable speed - a shock and awe attack on assumptive victory pronouncements. No-one could have anticipated this - other than those of us who did, frequently, and months ago.

Maliki's assault on the Sadrists, painted as a general assault on "criminal militias", but somehow managing to leave his SIIC/Badr Brigade allies well alone, is failing badly. Everywhere, the Mahdi Army are holding their own territories and even expanding the fight into new towns and neighbourhoods. Given the unreasonably small force with which Maliki launched his assault, and the estimated 60% penetration of the region's police by the Mahdi Army which has led to widespread desertions, Fester and I are convinced that Maliki had a good idea this would happen. His main purpose in mounting the assault was to ensnare US occupation forces into stepping into the lead, battling Sadr's forces for him and for his SIIC allies.

That leaves the US with no good options in the South, even if commanders had little choice but to get Maliki's back from the front.

"The key question now is what the United States is going to do," said Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group think tank. "If it allows (the crackdown) to go forward the ceasefire will unravel and the U.S. will face the Sadr movement in its full power."

"This will be bad for both sides. Sadr will lose men and the United States will lose the gains of the surge".

...Analysts say Maliki's decision to launch the Basra crackdown, instead of carrying through with a promised offensive against Sunni Islamist militants in the northern city of Mosul, lends weight to the Sadrist accusations of a political agenda.
Oh yeah, Mosul. While it's been getting almost no press in the States, there's been a major battle going on there too for months which has seen violence rise to a 2-year high with no end in sight and several reports suggest the fighting is against a wider-based insurgency than one composed just of the rump of AQI's presence. Let's not forget, too, that Turkey is still shelling and bombing Kurdish Iraq, and will be back over the border in force as soon as the Spring Thaw sets in. Between these and other prior commitments, the US will be lucky if it can shake loose three brigades to help Maliki's crackdown. They'll be going in essentially blind.
"This is a precarious situation," a senior official familiar with U.S. intelligence in southern Iraq said, with "a lot to be gained and a lot to lose." This official and others said that even as Maliki takes needed military action in Basra, he appears to be positioning himself and his Shiite political allies for dominance in provincial elections this fall.

Competition for power and resources in the oil-rich south has been ongoing for months among the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; the Badr Corps militia of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest single party in the Iraqi parliament; and the breakaway Sadrist movement known as Fadhila. The Shiite groups are opposed and allied with each other in a tangle of national and local issues, with many divisions reflected in factions of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces.

Although the Bush administration has tried to monitor the growing conflict in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, "our intelligence in that area is far less than we would like. We don't have any forces there," the senior official said, adding that "we are operating with a good dose of opaqueness."

As outlined by several civilian and military officials, none of whom was authorized to speak on the record, a victory in Basra against what Bush described as "those who believe they are outside the law" could prove Maliki's mettle. "Basra's been a mess for a long time," said a U.S. official in Baghdad, "and everybody's said to Maliki, 'What are you doing about it?' "

But this official and others said that if the fighting in Basra leads to a breakdown in the cease-fire observed since August by the bulk of Sadr's forces elsewhere in the country, it could easily shatter the tenuous U.S. security gains of recent months.
Indeed, the Sadrist insurrection which has followed Maliki's assault now controls many towns athwart the main route of supply for US forces, up from Saudi Arabia - and insurgent troops can take potshots at supply trucks all day every day if needed.

Yet, despite all this, there are good reasons to be sceptical of leaks from the White House suggesting the administration had no idea Maliki was going to bring his offensive forwards three months and thus pre-empt any moves by Sadr (and perhaps Petreaus, who has been getting along well with "Seyyed" Muqtada of late) which might have made it unneccesary.

Nor should the US be looking to the UK to provide anything but base security at the Basra Airport, probable home of US forces sent to bail out Maliki's division of Badr Brigade militiamen in Iraqi Army uniforms. While British politicians are under intense pressure from the US to commit their three available battlegroups – each of about 650 men armed with Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior armoured vehicles – the British military is implaccably opposed to such intervention.
"It's ridiculous for Britain's position in Iraq that we've got this firepower down there and we're not willing to help the Iraqis out," the British official said. "The army won't even listen to suggestions it might be needed."
Maliki, too, is seeing political blowback froom his hasty move - and his governemnt is busy painting itself into a corner even as contrary voices mobilize. His foreign minister has told the Arab Council that there will be no walking back or negotiated settlement. Maliki himself has today gone as far as to call the Sadrists worse than Al Qaeda and promise no surrender or negotiation. But there are reports that Grand Ayatollah Sistani (or the "cat-herder", as Eric likes to call him) is backing calls for negotiations instead of Maliki's intransigence - a new development in Shiite inter-relations and one that seriously weakens Maliki's postion.
The scale of the outcry has forced Grand Ayattollah Sistani to call for a peaceful solution to the conflict, even though his various spokespeople initially supported the assault. By Friday, government officials were falling over themselves to get to TV stations to declare that the fighting was not against the Sadr movement at all. With an eye on the sentiment and reality on the streets, some officials even heaped praise on Sadr, insisting the conflict was with "ordinary criminals".
I saw a report earlier that even Iraqi President Talibani is saying there must be negotiations, but I've lost the link. A senior Iranian cleric, the leader of that country's Guardian Council, has also said that the opposing groups should negotiate an end to their clashes - which seems to put paid to the notion floated by the Saudi-controlled Arabic press that Iran had cut Muqtada loose and green-lighted SIIC and Dawa as their main allies and proxies in Iraq to take the Sadrists out. The Iraqi parliament tried to have a session calling for negotiation, one backed by Sunnis as well as Sadrists - but Dawa and SIIC representatives walked out en masse, leaving them quorumless. Perhaps calls from Sadrist MP's to try Maliki "like Saddam" had something to do with that, perhaps they simply wanted to forestall any notion that they didn't have a national mandate for their parties' self-serving actions.

Maliki is now in a position whereby he might - might - be able to win or stalemate the battle with American assistance, but there's no way he can win the political war he's started. He will either fall or be forced to painfully backtrack to negotiate a settlement which will favor Sadr more than it does himself. He's toast and Sadr, despite the many op-eds written over the last four years claiming the opposite, very much isn't. It remains to be seen how fast the Bush administration. always slow to see the blindingly obvious, catch on to this fact.