Saturday, March 29, and the news out of Iraq, via the Associated Press, was not good:
Anti-American Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers Saturday to defy government orders to surrender their weapons, as U.S. jets struck Shiite extremists near Basra to bolster a faltering Iraqi offensive against gunmen in the city.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged he may have miscalculated by failing to foresee the strong backlash that his offensive, which began Tuesday, provoked in areas of Baghdad and other cities where Shiite militias wield power.
Government television said the round-the-clock curfew imposed two days ago on the capital and due to expire Sunday would be extended indefinitely. Gunfire and explosions were heard late Saturday in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
Now into the sixth year of this, after losing more than four thousand troops and spending more than six hundred billion borrowed dollars, things have gone south – that’s where Basra is. Our embassy is telling all staff to use armored vehicles for all travel in the Green Zone and to sleep in reinforced buildings. Six days of rocket and mortar attacks will do that. Those attacks left two Americans dead.
But al-Maliki vowed to press on – to remain in Basra until his government’s forces take the place back from the various militias, including the Mahdi Army. It seems that British ground troops, the same guys who controlled the city until handing it over to the Iraqis last December, are chipping in – firing artillery Saturday for the first time in support of Iraqi forces.
It’s a mess – Iraqi authorities said that the bad guys have until April 8 to surrender heavy and medium weapons – or else. They had initially given them seventy-two hours, but the bad guys kind of laughed at that. And al-Sadr called on his followers Saturday to ignore the modified order – his Mahdi Army would turn in its weapons only to a government that can “get the occupier out of Iraq.” That would be us. Then he went on Al-Jazeera television Saturday and said his Mahdi Army was quite capable of “liberating Iraq” on its own, thank you very much, and added that al-Maliki’s government was as “distant” from the people as Saddam Hussein’s. He seems to be doing the liberator thing – perhaps next he’ll be dumping cases of tea in the Basra harbor, just to tick us off.
Of course the fight for Basra is crucial for al-Maliki – he made it so. He flew down there earlier in the week – he won’t be pushed around. He will win control of Iraq’s second-largest city, held by armed groups for nearly three years – to prove he’s the man. He promised to “stand up to these gangs” not only down there, but throughout Iraq, which is why chunks of Baghdad are in flames. We have to assume his position – he’s our man there – this crackdown was not really directed at al-Sadr’s movement, with its thirty seats in parliament, but against “criminals and renegade factions,” the folks who have ties to Iran. And al-Maliki said some of these guys “are worse than al-Qaida.” He didn’t mention that he spent the Saddam years in exile in Iran, and counts on Iran himself.
Al-Sadr’s folks have said that was all a joke – rival Shiite parties in the national government are simply trying to crush their movement before provincial elections this fall. If so, that would mean our troops and the Brits have been drawn into one hell of a primary season – and all the White House efforts to convince Congress and the American public that the Iraqis are making progress toward managing their own security without us gets a tad more difficult.
After all, a group of police in Sadr City abandoned their posts and handed over their weapons to al-Sadr’s local office. Our guys know that the police forces in Baghdad are at best heavily influenced by Mahdi militiamen, or infiltrated. It’s just becoming more obvious:
“We can’t fight our brothers in the Mahdi Army, so we came here to submit our weapons,” one policeman said on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
He said about 40 policemen had defected to the Mahdi Army. The figure could not be confirmed, but AP Television News footage showed about a dozen uniformed police, their faces covered with masks to shield their identity, being met by Sheik Salman al-Feraiji, al-Sadr’s chief representative in Sadr City.
Al-Feraiji greeted each policeman and gave them a copy of the Quran and an olive branch as they handed over their guns and ammunition.
It’s going to be hard to stop the perception that we’ve decided to use our forces to back the unpopular puppet of an even more unpopular occupying foreign government – but you take over a place and stay there more than five years, trying to keep a lid on things with one hundred forty thousand troops who don’t speak the language and don’t care much for the local religion, and such things happen. It may be unfair – and our intentions noble and good – but this had to happen.
So you get major fighting in Karbala, Hillah, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Kut and other cities throughout the Shiite south. We drop our precision-guided bombs, the Brits fire their artillery, and you get the Iraqi police saying we strafed a house and killed eight civilians, including two women and one child. All we can say is that we cannot verify that. But we do airstrikes in Sadr City and other eastern Baghdad neighborhoods. And things had been going so well. Drat.
Kevin Drum here wonders what happens if the Mahdi Army beats the government forces and actually wins the Battle of Basra:
The Brits are hunkered down at the airport and have no intention of helping out. American forces are busy in Baghdad and can’t afford to come south. And the Iraqi 14th Division is the best one Maliki has at his disposal. He either wins with what he’s got, or he doesn’t.
And if he doesn’t? What then? Does Sistani intervene? Does Maliki’s government collapse? Does the American military take over in Basra by scavenging up troops from northern Iraq? Does Muqtada al-Sadr abandon his cease-fire and start up a real civil war? Or does everything go back to the status quo ante, but with the Sadrists in an even better position to win the October elections and take formal control over most of the south?
His conclusion is that he doesn’t have any idea:
But things are not going well for Maliki at the moment, and a loss in Basra would make it crystal clear just how shaky his position is, how weak and factional the Iraqi security forces are, and how little commitment there is on any side to genuine political reconciliation.
And we’re there now to do what? See “Cernig” at “Newhoggers” here:
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 Nouri al-Maliki playing Napoleon in Basra, alongside his brother-in-law general, stability in Iraq is unraveling with remarkable speed – a shock and awe attack on assumptive victory pronouncements.
… 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.
Well, maybe so, but the timing was odd. Kevin Drum asks the questions:
Did Nouri al-Maliki really launch the Basra offensive without telling us beforehand? Several observers doubt this, suggesting that, in fact, there was a direct quid pro quo: in return for Maliki allowing the Iraqi election law to pass (a sop to the Sunni Awakening councils we’ve been working with), Bush and Cheney agreed to green-light the Basra project (designed to solidify Maliki’s control of the Shiite south).
Drum points to Ilan Goldenberg’s counterargument:
The reason I don’t buy this theory is that the timing makes no sense whatsoever from a domestic political perspective. If there was a quid pro quo, the Bush Administration would have asked for a waiting period until after the Petraeus Crocker testimony. Why go with such a high risk operation a week before the progress report to Congress? Makes no sense. This Administration is pretty incompetent about a lot of things, but for the most part they seem to understand political timing.
But Drum can think of three reasons why the White House and the military might have believed the timing of the Basra operation was just fine:
Maybe Maliki and his generals convinced everyone that this would be a quick mopping-up operation lasting only a few days. Bush, in particular, adores bold action and seems eager to believe in every light at the end of every tunnel, so he might well have bought into this. Far from the timing being a problem, then, it held out the hope of providing Petraeus with a huge success story leading up to his congressional testimony.
Violence and fatalities have been up this month in Iraq, so Petraeus was going to have trouble selling his usual rosy surge scenario anyway. Given that, why not get all the bad news out of the way at once? In fact, in a way the Basra offensive actually helps Petraeus out by providing him with a ready-made excuse for why the fatality numbers are on the upswing.
Bush and Petraeus are both eager to pause the drawdown of surge troops, and Basra provides them with a perfect pretext. After all, you can’t very well withdraw troops at the very moment when our brave allies are finally making a stand to restore law and order in preparation for upcoming elections, can you?
Take your pick. It hardly matters. Drum seems to feel there’s actually no particular rhyme or reason in the timing of all this. Stuff happens. It’s a Rumsfeld thing.
But George Bush did explain what’s happening in Basra:
President Bush said Friday that the offensive answered critics who have accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite Muslim-dominated government of inaction and of favoritism toward Shiites.
“I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq,” Bush said at the White House “And it is an interesting moment for the people of Iraq because they must have confidence in their government’s ability to protect them and to be evenhanded.”
Kevin Drum also deals with that:
The usual question presents itself here: Which is worse, (a) that Bush actually believes this or (b) that he knows better but thinks the rest of us will buy this nonsense? Is there another person on the planet who would be either delusional enough or ballsy enough to describe Maliki’s actions in Basra as “evenhanded?”
Anyway, I’m going with (a). Your mileage may vary.
Whichever it is, Reuters points out that we may have no good options in the South; even our commanders had no choice but to cover Maliki’s ass:
“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.
What are we doing there again? Heck, the Washington Post reports that we’re going in blind:
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.
Okay, we’re going in blind AND risking the whole thing.
See “Cernig” at “Newhoggers” here:
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, catches on to this fact.
What are we doing there again? Maybe we should get out.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, writing in the Washington Post, takes the long view:
The contrast between the Democratic argument for ending the war and the Republican argument for continuing is sharp and dramatic. The case for terminating the war is based on its prohibitive and tangible costs, while the case for “staying the course” draws heavily on shadowy fears of the unknown and relies on worst-case scenarios. President Bush’s and Sen. John McCain’s forecasts of regional catastrophe are quite reminiscent of the predictions of “falling dominoes” that were used to justify continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Neither has provided any real evidence that ending the war would mean disaster, but their fear-mongering makes prolonging it easier.
Matthew Yglesias here notes that we’ve been at this since the Lyndon Johnson administration. We replay Vietnam, one more time:
The right has made a lot of hay out of the fact that some anti-war types to some extent understated the extent to which a North Vietnamese victory would be a humanitarian problem for many South Vietnamese people. Much less hay has been made out of the fact that the hawks had been quite literally arguing that there was a straight line between the “Communistification” of Vietnam and then the inevitable spread of Communism to Malaysia, Indonesia, all of Asia, and soon enough the United States itself. The argument really was that we had to face them over there or else we’d be fending them off from our very shores.
And it was ridiculous and remains so today. And yet the essence of the case for staying in Iraq indefinitely really does hinge crucially on these lurid worst-case scenarios. And it’s true – if we leave Iraq in the most irresponsible manner possible and we suffer from a lot of bad luck and everything that could go wrong does go wrong and we don’t respond to events intelligently, then these terrible outcomes might happen. But that’s no reason to stay in Iraq forever – if we stay and everything goes wrong, that’ll be terrible, too.
So Brzezinski says a serious effort to get out of Iraq is going to require a political and diplomatic component as well as the mere absence of our troops. We’re heading in the other direction. Diplomatic engagement, which Yglesias points out is really “crucial to trying to minimize the inevitable fallout from the United States doing what needs to be done in military terms,” has always been off the table – or had been to this point. He says it shouldn’t be:
I would note that on the diplomatic front, it’s probably easier to get Iraq’s neighbors to contribute constructively to stability in Iraq once we’ve decisively decided not to run together “stability in Iraq” with “Iraq becomes base for US power projection and mad schemes to overthrow all the governments in the region.”
But we’re not going there. We need to support the only government we’ve been able to cobble together over there, even if it is somewhat pro-Iran and run like a bad episode of the Keystone Cops. Do you want that lurid worst-case scenario or do you want comedy – where our guys actually die?