Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Knight's Move

By Cernig

Earlier today, Fester wondered why Maliki has gone charging into a city of 2.6 million after a numerous and entrenched Mahdi Army - armed only with a division of troops possessing no heavy firepower and only lightly armored trucks. He wrote:

why was this attacked launched with what looks to be massively insuffucient force levels on the part of the Iraqi Army? Was it pure staff stupidity/buying into your own propaganda that the JAM is a bunch of thugs with no popular support? Was it that the 14th Division was the only reliable division? Was it a hope that the introduction of a large force would destablize the local equilibriums of power and thus prompt local Badr and Fadillah militia attacks?
Fester called me this evening to discuss these questions and we settled on a combination of "the 14th Division was the only reliable division" - it's recruited in Basra, commanded by SIIC loyalists and has been based in Kerbala until now - and an option he hadn't listed earlier - that Maliki planned to draw the US into the fight on his side and move his own troops back into a PR/reserve position at the earliest opportunity.

Maliki christened his offensive the "Charge of the Knights" - and in chess, beloved game of all in the region, knight's move to come at the enemy from unexpected directions. By failing to commit enough forces to fight the Mahdi Army, his operation is certain to need rescuing if his government is not to fall in turn. The US cannot, with the best will in the world, commit more than a brigade or maybe three. That's way not enough to take on a force like the Mahdi Army in a city the size of basra through boots on the ground - and so firepower, bombs and shells will be pressed into service to do the work of the missing boots. Can we say "massive collateral damage?"

What better way not only to wreck the Sadrist's plans to reduce Maliki's SIIC allies to a minority power in the regional elections but also to drive a massive wedge between Sadr and Petreaus? The latter had been careful, of late, to refer to Sadr by the honorific "Seyed" and to credit his ceasefire with a large chunk of reductions in Iraqi violence. Maliki must have felt Mookie breathing down his neck from two directions.

Well, soon no longer. The Washington Post reports that US troops are already involved in combat with the JAM in east Baghdad.
U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.

Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of American weapons, along with the Mahdi Army's AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.

The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday.
And, according to the WaPo, the folks in the White House have been trying to figure out what Maliki's been up to as well.
Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials. With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.

In Basra, three rival Shiite groups have been trying to position themselves, sometimes through force of arms, to dominate recently approved provincial elections.

The U.S. officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record, said that they believe Iran has provided assistance in the past to all three groups -- the Mahdi Army; the Badr Organization of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Iraq's largest Shiite party; and forces loyal to the Fadhila Party, which holds the Basra governor's seat. But the officials see the current conflict as a purely internal Iraqi dispute.

Some officials have concluded that Maliki himself is firing "the first salvo in upcoming elections," the administration official said.

"His dog in that fight is that he is basically allied with the Badr Corps" against forces loyal to Sadr, the official said. "It's not a pretty picture."
As long as Maliki has the US to back him up, and power is more important to him than stability, this is a big gamble he cannot afford not to make. Sure, if he succeeds he gets a Sadrist insurrection. But that just means he can - delay the November elections in Sadrist areas indefinitely, citing the emergency and so prop up his SIIC allies and thus his own rule; count on US troops being around for a while as they won't be able to withdraw if there's more violence, rather than less, in coming months; put paid once and for all to any chance of reproachment between the US military and Sadr. On the minus side, there's a slim chance the Mahdi Army might mount a Hezboullah-style upset and a rather larger chance that the cat-herder, Sistani, might join with Iraqi parliamentarians who are already saying Maliki should heed Sadr's call for a negotiated settlement. If Sistani backs Sadr on this, Maliki is toast and so is his government, with Sadr garnering enough backing to become de-facto Iraqi leader almost overnight. But if he did nothing, that's going to happen anyway come November. Maliki doesn't have a choice if he wants to retain power.

For Sadr, the stakes are the destruction of his carefully built up social and political infrastructure, more than his militia. There's no way SIIC would stop at just defeating the Mahdi Army, they'd want Sadr's whole operation destroyed or disabled to the point where it's no longer a threat. Sadr knows the US military likely has the firepower, if not the troop numbers, to do the first and his Shiite enemies will do it the second as soon as the first step is out of the way. If he can negotiate a settlement, especially if Sistani backs it, he wins in the same way that Maliki, Dawa and SIIC lose above.

For the US, it's a bit of a lose-lose. If they use massive firepower instead of boots, they'll incur the wrath of much of the Shiite South well beyond the Sadrists. It will be Anbar at its worst, writ large, and this time lying athwart the main route of supply. If they lose in battle to a Hezboullah-style resistance, same again.

And over the US' shoulder, there are several other problems all looking to come to a head at once. There's the increasingly disaffected Sunni Awakening, threatening a general strike or even a return to their insurgent ways in the face of Maliki's refusal to accommodate them (ironically, Sadr would be far more likely to conduct the outreach that is needed). Then there's the Kurds and the brewing blood-feud over who owns Kirkuk. And finally, when the ground in the Northern mountains thaws in April and May, the Turks are looking to follow up their recent reconnaissance in force with a proper armored incursion on the hunt for PKK terrorists. There's a very real prospect here of chaotically and accidentally converging currents creating a perfect storm for the US occupation and for peace in Iraq.