Monday, March 24, 2008

If You Kill My Dog, I'ma Slay Your Cat

Over the past couple of months, I have been sounding the alarm that the US military and its allies in the Iraqi government are pushing too hard against Moqtada al-Sadr, such that he might be forced to lift the cease fire in place since last Spring/Summer. Thankfully, in late February, Sadr extended that cease-fire as its expiration date approached. Still, at the time I warned:

While this is a positive development (both for US forces and, consequently, Mahdi Army forces), it is important to remember that this declaration of truce is not exactly a binding contract. It is entirely contingent on developments on the ground, namely the extent to which raids on Sadr's cadres (even non-militia members) persist.

Unfortunately, the attacks and targeting of members of the Sadrist current have continued - actually, they've heated up in recent weeks with informed speculation pointing to a coordinated attempt to weaken the Sadrist current ahead of regional elections (more on this below). A couple of weeks back, Sadr hinted at an adjustment in the parameters of the cease-fire that would carve out a pretty substantial loophole:

The normally reclusive Sheikh Sadr released his second statement in three days responding to a list of questions from followers...

"If a military war is conducted against us by the occupiers we will defend ourselves," Sheikh Sadr said in the four-page statement bearing his personal seal.

"Self-defence against the occupiers is beyond discussion."

Sure enough, yesterday, the AP reported:

[R]ockets pounded the U.S.-protected Green Zone in Baghdad and a wave of attacks left at least 61 Iraqis dead nationwide. [...]

The attacks followed a series of clashes last week between U.S. and Iraqi forces and factions of the Mahdi Army, the biggest Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

A telling, if somewhat understated, paragraph from the AP article:

Al-Sadr's followers have accused the Shiite-dominated government of exploiting the cease-fire to target the cleric's supporters in advance of provincial elections expected this fall and demanded the release of supporters rounded up in recent weeks. [emphasis added]

It is no secret that America's main ally in Iraq (and Iran's), the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), is likely to lose ground to the more popular Sadrist current in the upcoming provincial elections (the Sadrist current boycotted the 2005 round). Absent some extracurricular activities to level the playing field that is. As Cernig noted, quoting an AP article on Friday, ISCI, whose Iran-trained militia (the Badr Corp.) has heavily infiltrated Iraqi Security Forces, has been moving aggressively (in tandem with US forces) to help overcome what it lacks in popular appeal:

A Sadrist member of parliament alleged that the crackdown in Kut and elsewhere in the south was part of a move by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and [ISCI] to prevent al-Sadr's followers from winning control of key southern provinces in provincial elections expected this fall.

"They have no supporters in the central and southern provinces, but we do," Ahmed al-Massoudi told the AP. "If the crackdown against the Sadrists continues, we will begin consultations with other parliamentary blocs to bring down the government and replace it with a genuinely national one."

The maneuvering continues today (from the first AP article cited above):

Also Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki relieved the top two security officials in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, officials said. The move is a sign of growing concern about security in the nation's oil capital since British forces handed over control of the city last year.

Two Iraqi officials said the police chief of Basra, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, and the commander of the city's joint military-police operation, Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, have been replaced.

The timing is not the product of mere happenstance - nor should Basra's importance in the Shiite political game be underestimated. Also, as translated from Al Hayat by Badger:

As the level of tension rises between the Iraqi government and the American forces on the one side, and the Mahdi Army on the other, the British Defence Minister went back on a previous plan to reduce their forces in Basra from 4100 to 2500, given the preparations that the Iraqi army is making for a broad operation against Shiite militias in that city.

I wonder if this "progress" is part of what Cheney promised his allies in ISCI in order to get them to withdraw their veto of the law which contained provisions for regional elections. Regardless, Brandon Friedman is right to be concerned with the recent spike in US casualties. If we continue to side with ISCI in its efforts to cripple Sadr through massive purges, arrests and violent confrontations ahead of the October elections (in support of the democratization of Iraq, natch), our forces will begin to sustain higher casualties as the Sadrists fight back.

Sadr might be making alternative plans himself - finally forging one of those long sought after cross-sectarian alliances. This one would be centered around one of the more popular platforms going in terms of cross-sect appeal: putting US forces on a firm schedule for withdrawal.

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