Sunday, March 30, 2008

Analyzing & Spinning The Offensive in Basra

The Basra Offensive will not reignite major hostilities in Iraq and to call the Iraqi Army "bogged down" in Basra just a few days into the Iraqi government's offensive to retake the city is ridiculous.


Much of the MSM is trying to shoehorn the Iraqi offensive against Sadr - and its spillover outside Basra - into its anti-war meme that Iraq is a quagmire, etc. To the contrary, it is absolutely necessary both to take control of Iraq's major port city and to exert control over their country. The offensive in Basra is necessary to bring peace to the country, and it is doubtful that Sadr will long risk open warfare again with the U.S.

Sadr, if you will recall, made a powerplay in 2004, seeking to defeat the U.S. in an uprising against U.S. forces that ended with the decimation of his Mahdi Army in Najaf in 2004. Sadr reconstituted a militia with support from Iran. In 2006, following al Qaeda in Iraq's bombing of the Mosque of the Golden Dome, Sadr’s forces, heavilly supported by Iran, engaged in a brutal campaign against Sunnis that led Iraq to the brink of civil war and gave a large part of the impetus for the surge. Indeed, it is clear that Iran is attempting to set up Sadr's Mahdi militia along the lines of Hezbollah and duplicate Iran's control of Iraq much as they control Lebanon.

Fifteen months ago, our MSM was speculating that Maliki would not authorize any action against Shia militias - and in particular Sadr's miitias - that were almost as problematic as al Qaeda. PM Maliki was portrayed as beholden to Sadr and, indeed, he had protected Sadr's militia from U.S. offensives. The NYT continued to harp on that meme long after it became apparent that Maliki had broken with Sadr and had come to view Sadr as a major obstacle towards governing Iraq.

Sadr, for his part, pulled back from any direct confrontation with U.S. forces during the surge. He has, however, made a bid for control of several cities in the south, with the most important being Basra. The British never exerted real control over the city, and their withdraw led to a complete vaccum that the various Shia militias attempted to fill. This was much more along the lines of gangland warfare to control the crime in 1920's Chicago than anything else - it was a campaign of assassinations and intimidation with the prize being control of Iraq's major port and the truckloads of cash that could be skimmed from the theft and blackmarket sales of oil. A recent NYT article provides an excellent and thorough review of the situation in Basra as of February of this year.

Now you have much of the MSM attempting to claim that the battle in Basra has returned Iraq back to open warfare and that, because Iraqi forces have not yet cleared the city of Basra five days after the offensive began, the offensive in Basra has stalled and the Iraqi military is losing. Both are ridiculous claims.

As to the latter, war is not a video game where the fighing ends in an hour. Offensives to force an enemy from a city - MOUT operations - are arguably the most difficult and time consuming of all military operations. In World War II, MOUT operations ate up entire divisions over a period of months. In Vietnam, during the TET offensive, it took nearly thirty days to drive the NVA out of Hue. Proclaiming anything about the Basra offensive after five days shows more than anything that our current crop of journalists lack any military experience and any understanding of military history.

As to the former claim, that the offensive in Basra will ignite much further unrest in Iraq, that ignores the necessity of establishing central government control over Basra and it mispercieves the potential ramifications. This is not 2004 and Sadr is no longer viewed as a bulwark against Sunnis nor a necessity for delivery of services. He does not enjoy large scale support throughout the Shia population. A NYT "news analysis" today, though rife with speculation, nonetheless explains the situation adequately:

The most intense fighting in Iraq in months had the ring of the familiar. Another battle against followers of a rebel Shiite cleric. Fighting in the south that spread to other cities.

But as the week came to a close, it was clear that the current fighting in the southern city of Basra and the clashes in Baghdad had some fundamental differences from the battles in Najaf and Baghdad that plagued the American military in 2004.

For starters, the Shiite rebels are fighting mainly Iraqi soldiers, rather than Americans. Their leader, Moktada al-Sadr, is not defending against attacks from a redoubt inside the country’s most sacred shrine, but is issuing edicts with a tarnished reputation from an undisclosed location, possibly outside the country. And Iraq’s prime minister, a Shiite whom Americans had all but despaired would ever act against militias of his own sect, is taking them on fiercely.

The differences represent a shift in the war, whose early years were punctuated by uprisings against Americans by a vast, devoted group of Mr. Sadr’s followers, who were largely respected by Shiites. As their tactics veered into protection rackets, oil smuggling and other scams, Mr. Sadr’s followers too began to resemble mafia toughs more than religious warriors, splintering and forming their own gangs and networks, many beyond Mr. Sadr’s direct control.

Even some Sadrists seemed to understand the toll their methods were taking on their popular appeal, which has become increasingly important as provincial elections draw near.

. . . Basra residents were groaning under daily assassinations and kidnappings and a wholesale policy of intimidation. By the time the fighting started in Basra on Tuesday, that discontent had spread to a large swath of Iraqi society — including some of its largely Shiite army and police. The shift opened up a space for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to move against the Mahdi Army. And while it is far from clear that his effort will succeed — reports of soldier and police surrenders abound — the mere fact that he is trying is new.

. . . [A] strong note of support for Mr. Maliki’s actions could be heard in the words of some Iraqis interviewed this week, who cast his success as crucial to the future of their country.

“If Mahdi Army wins this war, that means Iraqi will be destroyed,” said a Shiite businessman from Baghdad. “That means Moktada will be president and it will be a stick in the eye of the Americans. It will be a religious country, an extreme country.”

The Mahdi Army’s image is considerably changed from 2004, when its members were seen as Shiite Robin Hoods, protecting undefended neighborhoods, helping distribute cooking gas, and standing up to what many Shiites saw as an act of American aggression, when tanks rolled into Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. But during the sectarian violence and terror of the ensuing years, the militia began breaking down into a patchwork of groups, some involved in death squads, others in theft and corruption.

A Western official with knowledge of Iraq’s security forces said the current situation differed from earlier stand-offs because the Iraqi Army finally has the resources to take on the militiamen.

The official said Mr. Sadr’s followers “overplayed their hand” and may have fatally damaged his credibility. Mr. Sadr’s lack of control, the official said, has forced Mr. Maliki to act, and to act decisively.

“The militia was indifferent to the cease-fire. They didn’t do what Sadr told them to do, to hold peaceful demonstrations only and no attacks,” he said. “They just didn’t do that, and they’re making him look like he’s out of control.” . . .

Read the entire article. The MSM will continue to try and spin this in the upcoming month, but there is no question the Iraqi army and the U.S. will prevail in the effort both in Basra and to any other areas in which the Sadrists rise up. A second decimation of the Sadrists will hurt Iranian interestes - and that is indeed very good for the long term peace and security of Iraq. It will mean that when this offensive is concluded in 30 or 60 or 90 days, Iraq will be a safer place indeed - and the Iraqi central government will have established its bona fides in a way only taking on the Sadrists could establish.