Friday, April 4, 2008

Assumptions & Conclusions About Sadr, Maliki and the Basra Offensive

Two of my fellow Watcher's Council members, Dave Schuler at the Glittering Eye and Rick Moran at Right Wing Nuthouse, have written thorough and thoughtful posts on Basra and the many implications and ramifications surrounding the Iraqi offensive there. Dave is concerned with whether Maliki’s actions are partisan and involving us in a "civil war" type of scenario while Rick Moran, viewing the situation similarly, is finding it more difficult to justify remaining in Iraq.

I am taking the rare tack of crafting a responsive post because I think it is impossible to overstate the benefits of establishing a democratic and stable Iraq while, conversely, I think it equally impossible to overstate the costs of withdraw, leaving the country to be dominated by Iran and ripe for reinfiltration by al Qaeda. Within that rubric, some of the assumptions and conclusions stated in their posts are, I believe, fundamentally flawed and give a skewed view of a situation too critical to ignore.

Updates made based on the Congressional testimony of Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker are included below.

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As a threshold matter, let me state that this post is a very respectful dissent. Both Dave and Rick Moran are exceptional bloggers and both have written excellent posts on Iraq which you can find here and here respectively. I have provided a summary of areas of disagreement below with detailed explanations following.

Summary

1. The meme that Maliki’s actions to retake Basra were based on partisan politics is Sadrist propaganda parroted by our MSM. To the contrary, the situation shows the necessity of Maliki’s actions, that this offensive had been in the planning stages months before a provincial election law was passed, and that the offensive was wholly consistent with Maliki’s long stated intentions to retake Basra.

2. Sadr is not a national figure who enjoys broad support. Nor is he an individual with whom we can or should enter into a devil’s bargain.

3. The other major Shia militia – the Badr Organization - cannot be equated to Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

4. Drawing an inference that the Iraqi Army is weak from six days of fighting in Basra, or that the Mahdi Army is strong, is wholly unwarranted.

5. There are no facts upon which the Basra Offensive can be characterized as a victory for Sadr or a strengthening of his position.

6. The potential problems of the Kurdish north have long been known and are being addressed, but the largest problem is not al Qaeda in those areas.

7. The claim that Maliki Is "divider" who is "pursuing power for his coalition at the expense of other Shia parties and the Sunni minority" is an assertion with no reasonable basis in fact.

8. The long term threats to Iraq justifying continued American presence are not limited to al Qaeda.

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Explanation:

1. The meme that Maliki’s actions to retake Basra were based on partisan politics is Sadrist propaganda parroted by our MSM. To the contrary, the situation shows the necessity of Maliki’s actions, that this offensive had been in the planning stages for months before a provincial election law was passed, and that the offensive was wholly consistent with Maliki’s long stated intentions to retake Basra.

Both Dave and Rick portray Maliki’s action in attempting to assert control over Basra as having its origins in partisan politics. That is, I think, very much buying into the spin being put on the Basra operations started by Sadr and parroted by the MSM. It is palpably wrong.

Basra is a large city with a population estimated at 1.7 million people. It is Iraq’s economic center, home to two-thirds of Iraq's oil resources, Iraq’s only major port, and its sole dependable outlet for exporting oil. Britain was tasked with overseeing Basra following the March, 2003 invasion – and they failed utterly.

By 2005, Basra was already in the hands of the "militias," and in particular Sadr’s Mahdi Army. This 2005 article from CSM documents how Sadr’s militia in particular was imposing a rule in Basra with ever "increasing similarity to the repressive Iranian theocracy." This similarity came complete with torture and beheadings for singing, dancing, walking about without Iranian hijab, etc. A note here that these are in the same vein as charges regularly leveled against Sadr and his militia in other areas where they have held sway, such as Karbala. And on a second note, in all the reports that I have read of "militia" violence since July, 2006, the only militia that has ultimately been identified in any of the reports as specifically having committed any of the violence is Sadr’s Mahdi militia.

At any rate, by the time the British finally retreated in disgrace a few months ago, the militias fully occupied the power vacuum in Basra. The Iraqi government did not control Basra, and it descended into a gangland with the militias involved in incredibly lucrative illegal activities arising from control of the port. And, much like you see in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah and Nasrallah, billboards and posters "glorifying Mr. Sadr's fighters [were] everywhere in the city." A NYT article in February documented the many problems in Basra as it had further degenerated following the British retreat:

. . . Disappearances of doctors, teachers and other professionals are common, . . . Murder victims include judicial investigators, politicians and tribal sheiks. One especially disturbing trend is the slaying of at least 100 women in the last year, according to the police. The Iraqi authorities have blamed Shiite militiamen for many of those killing, saying the militants had probably deemed the women to be impious.

. . . Two dozen Shiite political parties and their respective militias compete, often violently, over control of the oil sector, seaport profits, smuggling operations across the nearby Iranian border and political authority over Iraq’s economic nerve center. So while the sectarian tension that has marred life elsewhere is missing here, the strife itself is not.

. . . Iraq’s security forces are the most conspicuous example of the tension between politics and violence in Basra, and the aptly named Serious Crimes Unit of the Basra Police is perhaps the most egregious example. The British Army determined that the unit was a death squad linked to Shiite militias and dispatched Warrior tanks in December 2006 to pound the rogue force’s headquarters to rubble.

But Iraqi arrest warrants for the unit’s members have never been executed. A warrant issued by Iraq’s Interior Ministry last month singles out . . . Abu Muslim, and accuses him of orchestrating kidnappings, torture and assassinations while leading the police unit. . . .

Mr. Abu Muslim escaped the 2006 British assault and . . . is receiving protection from high-level members of the Mahdi Army, the armed militia of Mr. Sadr. The cleric on Friday extended a cease-fire declaration he had imposed on his militiamen in August, but Mr. Ratel said the militia’s domination of the Basra police is a kind of loophole.

Reported killings peaked in May, when 112 people were murdered. By December killings had declined to 38, finishing 2007 with a total of 848 known homicides. Basra also had 383 reported kidnappings in 2007, according to official provincial tallies.

Because Mr. Sadr’s followers boycotted the 2004 elections that established the local government, they lack official representation in the local council. The Mahdi Army has compensated for its lack of official authority in Basra by pushing for jobs for Sadr followers in major government sectors, including health, oil, the port and education. Militia elements have also established protection rackets, ransom schemes and smuggling operations, according to American and Iraqi officials.

The militia has had the most success stacking Basra’s security forces.

. . . Sheik Ribat, in the interview at his mosque, said he spent an inordinate amount of time negotiating with militia-affiliated policemen who had kidnapped Iraqi Army soldiers for ransom. He has assisted the release of at least 50 soldiers since the British transfer of authority, he said.

"The police can kidnap the soldiers because the soldiers are not militia, and so they are scared," he said. . . .

Gen. Mohan Fahad al-Fraji . . . worries about the . . . existential threat of the militia-packed police force. He acknowledged that they routinely kidnapped his soldiers. He also complained of militias within his own force.

"Seventy percent of the army is pure," he said. "The other 30 percent, I don’t know. The militias are like a smoldering fire. They can explode at any time."

Jaleel Khalaf, a police general, believes that his own men are trying to kill him. The general . . . recounted the 10 assassination attempts he had survived since he started his job in July. He blames militia-affiliated policemen for some of those attempts, most of which were bomb attacks.

General Khalaf said his main challenge was to professionalize the police force and root out corruption. But he acknowledged that serious problems remained beyond his control. When he took over last year he said he discovered that 250 police cars and 5,000 pistols had been stolen by Basra’s various Shiite political parties and that they were being used by militia death squads.

And General Khalaf criticized his police colleagues who "came to their jobs poor, and are now very rich." . . .

Read the entire article.

The basic duties of government are to exercise control of its territory and to provide security for its inhabitants. The government was doing neither in Basra – which was particularly critical given its singular importance to Iraq’s economy. Indeed, as part of the aforementioned duties, a government needs to have a monopoly on the use of force within its borders. The alternative is Lebanon, where external countries, Syria and Iran, dominate the country through their proxy, Hezbollah. Clearly, Maliki had a right and duty to attempt to wrest control of Basra, and the dominant gang and criminal enterprise in Basra was Sadr’s Mahdi militia.

Maliki’s first action in this regard was to appoint Jaleel Khalaf to head the police in Basra in February, 2007 with a mandate was to get the militias out of the police and retake the city from the militias. By October, having survived numerous assassination attempts, Khalaf told al Jazeera that Basra was completely under control of the militias and that he could not complete his mission.

Malki’s second action was to begin to build forces near Basra to take part in the assault. The bulk of the forces involved were military units. That build-up of Iraqi forces began in July, 2007. As of December the Iraqi Army deployed four brigades (of 3 to 5 battalions each) and an Iraqi Special Operations Forces battalion in Basrah province. The Iraqi National Police deployed two additional battalions to the province. Maliki’s government clearly intended to assault Basra and establish government control long before the March offensive. This from the CS Monitor in December:

"The British legacy in Basra is criminal gangs, a corrupt and infiltrated police force, and borders open to all," says a senior Iraqi Army official in the province, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his remarks. "We are planning an operation to pursue these death squads."

The official says such an offensive would require at least two more Iraqi Army brigades in addition to the three brigades now in Basra under the command of Lt. Gen. Mohan Hafidh, who was appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The current police chief, Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, was also appointed by Mr. Maliki in a bid to wrest control of a province that is home to the bulk of Iraq's vital oil reserves and its only seaports.

Sadr, on March 21, was the first to cast the Basra offensive as a partisan political move involving Maliki teaming with SIIC to obtain some sort of political capital prior to provincial elections. Since picking up and running with enemy propaganda is one of the things our MSM does best, that is how this move has been cast since. It is pure bull. Maliki needed to assert control over his country's economic center and sole port. The offensive had been in the works for months, long before any date for provincial elections had been set. Sadr's propaganda and the speculation of the MSM that Maliki's Basra offensive was driven by partisan politics does not survive even a cursory examination.

2. Sadr is not a national figure who enjoys broad support. Nor is he an individual with whom we can or should enter into a devil’s bargain.

Sadr presents a clear and present threat to the vision of a functioning democracy in Iraq. His goals and vision for Iraq together with his association with Iran can hardly be called a nationalist platform with appeal to many Iraqis, and viewing him as an integral part of the political process in Iraq misapprehends the current situation.

At the start of the U.S. invasion in 2003, Sadr was a low level cleric who had inherited a strong following among poor Shia because of his grandfather and father, both of whom were assassinated by Saddam Hussein. Their popularity was predicated on being the voice of the Shia’s poor and, ironically, on their separation from Iran. It is important to note that in March, 2003, the "Mahdi Militia" did not exist. It was formed in the months following the U.S. invasion by a combination of Sadr, Iran and the now deceased uber-terrorist, Imad Mugineyah. Iran financed it, armed it while Mugineyah oversaw the training and established an organizational structure set along the lines of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

In 2004, Sadr and his movement tried to oust the U.S. from Iraq, and Sadr headquartered his militia inside of the Mosque of the Golden Dome, one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites, and as important to Shia’s as Mecca and Medina is to Sunnis. The U.S. destroyed Sadr’s militia in a month of fighting, capturing a significant number of Iranians along the way, and literally was at the gates of the Mosque. The U.S. did not enter the mosque, and did not fire upon it, and indeed, made a clear decision to allow Sadr to walk out of the Mosque with his heart still beating. Sadr, for his part, promised that he would enter the political realm as an alternative to his attempt at uprising. In other words, there was a deliberate decision not to make Sadr a martyr. In that regards, I am unsure why Rick assumed that we need to kill Sadr. We do need to defang his movement, and but for Iran, that has largely happened already.

Sadr’s continuing popularity among Shia after the 2004 uprising was far more grounded in practical reality than in religious beliefs. It was predicated in large measure on providing services to the Shia community, compliments of Iranian funding, - a technique Iran has used with exceptional effect in Lebanon with Hezbollah and in Gaza with Hamas. But the most important thing that Sadr provided was protection against Sunni terrorists that neither the government, nor our forces with their "small footprint" strategy at the time, could provide. In return, in those areas that Sadr controlled, he imposed an Iranian style regime, with all its heavy handedness and emphasis on adherence to Islamic precepts.

It is worth noting here, both as to Sadr and the other five major Shia religious parties, that in the national elections that were held in 2005, at the height of their popularity and with Sunni’s abstaining from the vote, the six Shia Islamic parties garnered only 40% of the vote. As it stands now, Sadr holds slightly over 10% of the seats in Parliament and SIIC holds about 15%. What course Iraq eventually takes will be decided by the 75% of the other parliamentary members, particularly as to the issue of federalism. Both SIIC and Sadr combined can in no way impose their will on the country – except by the gun. The few stories that have looked at their popularity today has found that many who originally supported the religious parties are now against them and plan to register their discontent at the next election.

In 2006, Iraq’s Shias were finally goaded into deadly action with the bombing of the Mosque of the Golden Dome. Both Sadr’s militia and the Badr Brigade viciously responded. But by the middle of 2006, that battle was over and the Shia had clearly won. While the Badr organization reigned in, Sadr’s militias did not. They were heavily involved in seeking to cleanse large regions of Sunni’s with "death squads." A portion of Sadr’s militia was co-opted directly by Iran and began working directly for the Qods Force outside of Sadr’s control.

Sadr’s popularity waned as the need for protection from al Qaeda terrorists lessened and his militia become identified as the leading perpetrators of sectarian violence. The Sadrist ministers in the government became infamous for their sectarian activity, and two are now under indictment for murder. Moreover, the people living in Sadrist controlled areas suffered under the dual heavy hand of both an Iranian style theocracy and militias that were becoming ever more to resemble Chicago era gangsters of the 1920’s.

When the U.S. announced the surge, it was with two enemies in the cross-hairs. The first was, of course, al Qaeda. The second was explicitly Sadr’s militias. Once it became clear that Sadr would not enjoy further protection from the Maliki government, he left for Iran.

It should also be noted that the Sadrist's, until defending at Basra, have not engaged in open warfare against U.S. troops or the newly formed Iraqi military since being decimated in 2004. Indeed, much is made today of Sadr's calls for a cease fire as being a large part of declining violence. But that itself is spin. Sadr's militias went underground in January, 2007, in response to the announcement of the surge, long before Sadr called for a "cease fire." Sadr’s “ceasefire” issued during the summer of 2007 merely put a spin on what was already reality.

Update: The testimony of Amb. Crocker indicates that the cease fire may not be mere spin as regards those Sadr forces outside of direct Iranian control. He states that the cease fire order has made a meaningful difference to the reduction in violence.

Little noted, but I think highly indicative of just how far Sadr's fortunes had waned among Iraqis was his call in March, 2007 for a massive million man march on Najaf to show support for his cause. The march on Najaf only drew between 5,000 and 7,000 people according to U.S. military observers. As one officer opined at the time, support for Sadr was "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Update: According to Amb. Crocker, Sadr's popularity has suffered significantly because of his association with Iran and the connection of his militia to gangsterism and violence.

Sadr’s vision has always been the establishment of an Iranian style theocracy in Iraq, presumably with himself as the Supreme Guide. He has been very open about this, as in this video of his most recent interview with al Jazeera a few days ago, and he is in Iran studying to be an Ayatollah under the uniquely Iranian polical-religious ideology that requires Shia clerical rule – i.e., a theocracy.

Some background here is appropriate. Almost since the Shia tradition began with the Mohammed’s cousin, Ali, well over a millenium ago, the Shia clerics have practiced what has become known as the quietest school. This means that the clerics have stayed out of politics. It is the tradition followed by the highest ranking cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He has staunchly refused to become embroiled in Iraq’s burgeoning political questions. For but one example, Sistani explicitly refused to involve himself in passing on political proposals for de-baathification that would open the way for Sunnis to retake positions in government.

This traditional school is completely at odds with Iran's theocracy. Khomeini shredded the traditional principles of apolitical Shia'ism when he established a clerical regime in Iran following the 1979 revolution. Indeed, according to the Middle East Institute, Sistani's belief in apolitical Shia'sm presents "a serious threat to Iran’s Islamic Republic."

Khomeini’s philosophy justifying this break with a millenium of tradition is called the velyat-al-faqi, It requires clerical rule over government – i.e., a theocracy. Sadr is now studying to become an ayatollah. The philosophy he is studying is not under Sistani, but rather he is in Iran studying to get his religious bona fides in the ideology of the velyat-al-faqi.

And thus it is no surprise that Iran duly supports Sadr and his militia with arms and money. Indeed, according to Amir Taheri, a native Iranian who rights often about Iraq and Iran, the Qods force was deeply involved in the preparation and leadership of the Sadr forces in the recent offensive. Kimberly Kagan, writing at the WSJ and surveying the degree of Iran’s involvement with Sadr's forces in Basra, termed the offensive as the Second Iran Iraq War.

And if you get your news from the MSM, it is no wonder that you would think Sadr enjoys broad support. The NYT has fawned over Sadr since 2004, when he came out strongly opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq. The Washington Post has been no better. Sadr’s strength at this point is from criminal gangs using his banner to enrich themselves and from largesse supplied by Iran. So long as we do not make him a martyr, given the lack of support, he can be dealt with over time.

3. The other major Shia militia – the Badr Organization - cannot be equated to Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

One of the bench marks voiced by President Bush over a year ago was that PM Maliki needed to move to disarm the militias in Iraq. There are two primary militias, the Mahdi Militia of Sadr (likely 20,000 under arms) and the "Badr" organization of the Supreme Counsel of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), now renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) (likely about 10,000 under arms.) Of these two, there is simply no comparison in their activities, and Maliki would have to be insane to start disarming SIIC rather than Sadr.

SCIRI was originally a resistance organization formed in the 1990's by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim. Al Hakim had fled to Iran to escape a death sentence from Saddam Hussein. With Iran’s support, Hakim built the political organization, SCIRI, and the "Badr Brigade." Anyone viewing the situation in 2003 would likely conclude that SCIRI was an Iranian proxy along the lines of Hezbollah. Events since 2003 have proven otherwise.

SCIRI joined Iraq's political process following the 2003 invasion. While the Badr Brigade pledged to disarm, they did not do so, claiming they needed their weapons for self defense. Nonetheless, SCIRI has not engaged in the extreme anti-American rhetoric of Sadr, nor have they engaged in any sort of major hostilities with coalition forces. Actually, to the contrary, they have assisted coalition forces in several notable instances, though the slate is not clean. The Badr Brigades played a significant role in reprisal attacks against Sunnis in the months following the bombing of the Golden Mosque.

Unlike with Sadr’s militia, there is no evidence of any ongoing role by the Badr organization in sectarian violence after the start of the surge. Nor is there evidence of attacks against the coalition forces. Nor have I heard any evidence that the Badr Brigade is implicated in the mayhem and gangsterism associated with the Mahdi militia and "special groups." Politically, the SCIRI has proven far more pragmatic then its religious origins and relationship to Iran's brand of Khomeinist political Shia'ism would lead one to project. Indeed, in December, 2006, in order to stop the havoc caused by the ever increasing sectarian attacks being carried out by the Sadr militia, SCIRI reached across the aisle to Sunni and Kurdish legislators to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition government that would isolate Sadr and his 30 member bloc in Parliament. This may well have been a critical event in moving Prime Minister Maliki to break with Sadr and support the counterinsurgency effort that today sees Sadr hiding in Iran while the U.S. military and Iraqi forces operate daily within Sadr City.

Since then, the SCIRI has made a much cleaner break with the Iranian theocracy. In May, 207, the SCIRI changed its name to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), refuted its pledge of loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Khamenei, and instead pledged loyalty to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. If you read my vignette on the quietist school above, it will be clear just how significant that it. The Badr organization and SIIC may be political rivals of Sadr, but they do not pose the existential threat to Iraqi democracy that Sadr and his Iranian proxy force pose.

4. Drawing an inference that the Iraqi Army is weak from six days of fighting in Basra, or that the Mahdi Army is strong, is wholly unwarranted.

The six day offensive in Basra resulted in significant casualties for Sadr’s militia, though little in the way of actual gains in Basra before Sadr offered to call off the fight. The various lessons drawn from this have been that the Iraqi Army is weak and that it cannot stand up on its own because they called for U.S. air support. Both conclusions are wholly unwarranted.

There are basically two types of ground warfare – maneuver and attrition. Wide open terrain means the lightening fast "maneuver" warfare of Gulf War I, where our forces were around and behind Iraqi forces before they knew we were there. It’s the warfare of Rommel’s blitzkrieg and Patton’s march to the Rhine, with large armored columns running at top speed. Constricted terrain means warfare of attrition where a handful can hold off the many. The 300 Sparatans at Thermopolye defended a front of only 200 meters, and thus could hold off well over 100,000 Persians for a period of days. There is a reason Switzerland has never been successfully invaded in the last millenium. In mountain passes, a platoon can easily hold off a brigade. In attrition warfare, the pace is very slow.

The worst terrain from an attacker’s point of view is a large city. In the military, its referred to as MOUT – military operations on urban terrain. It is a multidimensional battlefield ranging from sewers to skyscrapers with virtually unlimited cover and concealment for defenders. In large cities, such as in Russia during WWII, the Germany military lost entire divisions in MOUT operations, and that was even with a willingness to destroy the infrastructure and total unconcern with civilian casualties.

Basra is a highly developed city of 1.7 million people. That is a large city. The Sadrists were defending, they had knowledge of the impending offensive months in advance and fortified defenses, and they were supported with Iranian heavy weaponry, if not field leadership. The Iraqi government was not out to level the infrastructure nor to break the will of the people through causing civilian casualties. Expecting the Iraqi government forces to cake walk over the Sadrists in a period of six days in that scenario is just incredibly unrealistic – just as it is unrealistic to walk away with any sort of inflated belief in the strength of Sadr’s militia. In that type of environment, six weeks after initial contact would likely be a point where one could make assessments about the strength of the Iraqi Army or the strength and sustainability of Sadr’s militia – certainly not six days.

It is equally incorrect to draw the conclusion that the Iraqi Army is weak because they called upon support from U.S. air assets. Air assets are combat multipliers critical to modern warfare. The Iraqi army is standing up, but their air assets are far from being viable. With that in mind, the whole concept at this point is that Americans would support operations while Iraqis took the lead. That is precisely what happened in Basra. They did the grunt work, we supported from the air as needed. Portraying Iraqi’s calling on our air assets as somehow indicative of the army’s weakness is wholly unwarranted.

There are several conclusions that can be gleaned from the offensive. Clearly it was started with insufficient intelligence and, as a result, poor tactical planning or the Iraqi military would not be admitting to surprise at the degree of resistance that they met in their initial assaults. Two, it seems clear that the Army needed more forces at the start of the assault. Three, and possibly most importantly, was Maliki personally playing general. A political leader directing the nuances of a battle is almost inevitably an invitation to disaster. When this offensive is ultimately dissected, I expect Maliki will come in for a great deal of well deserved criticism for that.

5. There are no facts upon which the Basra Offensive can be characterized as a victory for Sadr or a strengthening of his position.

Update: According to the testimony of General Petraeus before Congress on April 8, the Basra offensive was not a defeat for Maliki. The Iraqi government now control the ports in Basra and is conducting on-going operations in that city aimed at the "special groups." The Iraqi military performance in Basra was uneven, partly becasue of poor planning. The Iraqi military successfully quelled Sadrist uprisings in all other cities.

Claiming the outcome of the Basra offensive as anything other than a tactical defeat for Sadr ignores the reality both of the offensive and the aftermath. The government went into Basra in order to establish government control over the city. The militias do not control Basra today, the government does. And most importantly, the government controls Basra's port. True the government has not destroyed Sadr’s militia, but it did not need to do so. And the media's speculation about the offensive spiraling into mass hostilities have proven groundless. Indeed, outside of Basra, in each location where the Mahdi militia rose up to challenge the Iraqi government, the Iraqi government won - Hillah, Kut, Karbala, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, and Amarah. And the U.S. secured Baghdad’s Sadr City.

The Iraqi Army are, at this moment, continuing operations, going into every section of the Basra hunting for wanted criminals – the majority of whom are Mahdi Army members. This in fact was what the offensive was originally intended to do. Army soldiers now control Iraq's port, having replaced all of the port's "security forces" that were, in reality, highly corrupt militia forces. The Army is conducting house to house searches for weapons. The Mahdi Army suffered significant casualties over the six days of fighting – "571 Mahdi Army fighters have been killed, 881 have been wounded, 490 have been captured, and 30 have surrendered . . . "

Sadr did not order his fighters to stand down because they were winning. Both Time Magazine and Bill Roggio reported that the high casualties, inability to resupply - the Army sealed the border with Iran - and low morale gave rise to Sadr’s call for a cease fire. To claim that Sadr won something out of this exchange is simply not justified on these facts.

Nibras Kazini, an Iraqi native and now visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute, puts the Basra offensive and its ramifications in perspective:

The ‘Intifada’ That Wasn’t

I won that wager. I had written that "the Iraqi Army’s military operation in Basra will be a spectacular win against disorder and Iranian influence". And I was right.Of course, most western media outlets are declaring Muqtada al-Sadr and Iran as the victors of Operation Cavalry Charge. Nothing could be furthest from the truth.The United Alliance List delegation comprising Ali al-Adib of the Da’awa Party, Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Organization and (I think…) Qasim al-Sahlani representing a group that had splintered from the Da’awa Party, evidently made al-Sadr an offer he couldn’t refuse when they sat down for a friendly chat in Tehran two days ago: the Iraqi state was willing to go all the way in smashing the Sadrist movement—arresting all the leaders and shutting down all the offices—if he didn’t play along with Operation Cavalry Charge and hand over those operatives whose names appear on the wanted lists.

. . . Maliki went to Basra with a long-ish list of names comprising all those involved in oil smuggling, drug dealing and the various other crimes that have wracked Basra. It just so happens that many of them claim to be Mahdi Army commanders.This is what I wrote a couple of days ago:

The Mahdi Army in Basra is only an army in the sense that ‘soldiers’ and ‘cappos’ are rankings in the Cosa Nostra. These organized crime cartels serve many purposes, chief among which is getting rich quick. There’s ample opportunity for mischief in Basra and plenty to pilfer and smuggle: oil, arms, drugs, and whatever happens to fall off a truck leaving the port, after the truck itself had been "re-routed". So there’s plenty of money and very little law enforcement—kind of like that Scorsese movie, Gangs of New York. Maliki made the calculation that he can take on these cartels and withstand the wrath of the other affiliated Mafiosi ‘familias’ that got unleashed in other parts of Iraq. The criminal syndicate knows that once Operation Cavalry Charge squashes their sweet set-up in Basra, then other pockets of criminality are going to be next, so that’s why they are going to the mattresses.

Well, so far several dozen of these Most Wanted folks have been killed, while tens of others are wounded or in hiding. At least 50 of them are under arrest. The outbreak of violence in places other than Basra was an occasion for the Iraqi Army and police to act on arrest warrants that have been outstanding since 2004, for example, several such dangerous outlaws were taken into custody in Karbala and Hillah.The only complaints that I heard today came from people who were disappointed that Maliki did not go for the kill: he did not snuff out the Sadrist movement from Iraqi politics. . . . What is incredibly interesting about this extremist sentiment is that such voices actually now think that Maliki and the Iraqi state have the wherewithal to do such as thing as outlaw the Sadrist movement and smash it. . . .

Maliki was a political nobody before he ‘accidentally’ became Prime Minister almost two years ago, but today he is perceived as a statesman commanding a strong and motivated army that can impose law and order on once-powerful forces that have run amuck. If that’s not a benchmark of success, then what is?The western media operating in Iraq regurgitated the Mahdi Army’s bravado as fact thereby serving as useful propaganda tools for the criminal cartels. I’d single out the New York Times, the Associated Press, McClatchy and CNN as the worst transgressors. Many journalists were positively orgasmic in anticipation of another ‘intifada’ or uprising to crease Bush’s message of hope and regeneration. But as the dust began to clear and the real scope of the battle was revealed, . . .

What then did these journalists do when they didn’t get their ‘intifada’? They couldn’t further imperil their careers by admitting that they were wrong—hell no!—so they’ve decided to brand Maliki and the Iraqi Army as the losers.

. . . Maliki won, pure and simple. The western media invented the narrative that Maliki was at war with the Sadrist movement, even though no such declaration was ever made. No one was interested in turning the Sadrists into martyrs when their stocks are sinking faster than Bear Stearns' anyway. Why turn the Sadrists into desperadoes with nothing to loose? Maliki’s approach is piece-meal: he’s taken out the intimidation factor that kept much of the Sadrist sway in place and he’s done that by showing them that they are no armed match for a better-disciplined, better-supplied Iraqi Army with plenty of stamina. The Sadrists are left with some political gains that they’ve accrued from joining the political process, such as government posts and lucrative contracts that they’d be loathe to part with and that’s their collateral for good behavior from now on.

. . . Now the Sadrist will have to sway voters their way with words and entreaties, rather than threats and drills. Most of the crime cartels are also on notice that the days of the ‘Wild, Wild South’ are over and there’s a new sheriff in town.Some problems will persist, but their severity had been significantly staunched. Maliki has promised to keep arresting the names on his list, and he has demonstrated that he’s a man who means what he says. The NYTimes does not have much of circulation in Iraq and almost nobody watches CNN, so maybe that’s why the regular folks I’ve been speaking to are so admiring of Maliki. The political elite in Baghdad is freaked out by Maliki’s newfound stature and they must all go back to the drawing boards to recalculate this new dynamic in the political equation. . . .

Read the entire post. As an aside, you will note that I had a native Iraqi translator as my guest last week. He is a secular Shia. His take on Maliki, and the views of his family and Baghdad that he reported, were similar to Mr. Kazini’s.

Update: And now Maliki has called on Sadr to disband his militia or be kept out of the political process. According to Amb. Crocker, this is actually a statutory provision of existing Iraqi law and applies to all political parties that have militias. Maliki is promising to enforce this provision and is receiving very broad based political support for that decision.

6. The potential problems of the Kurdish north have long been known and are being addressed, but the largest problem is not al Qaeda in those areas.

Kurds are mostly Sunni, but they are not Arab and few Kurds have been caught up in cooperation with al Qaeda. The al Qaeda penetration of Mosul and Kirkuk has been among former Baathists who were moved into those traditionally Kurdish cities by Saddam Hussein as part of a deliberate design to extend his hold over them.

Al Qaeda is being driven out of those areas by continuing operations of the surge. By all accounts, al Qaeda has been driven to these last redoubts and is strategically defeated in Iraq. Al Qaeda in those cities cannot be ignored, but their presence there does not indicate some new threat.

There is a problem with the Kurdish north, but it is the separatism being pushed by one faction of Kurds led by their regional governor, Massoud Barzani. He has dreams of a de facto Kurdish state has pushed hard to that end. The U.S. has been bringing political pressure to bear, and has also been cooperating with Turkey to allow cross border raids against the Kurdish PKK – a terrorist that seeks Kurdish independence for the Kurdish population that extends from Turkey, through Iraq and into Iran. Turkey has threatened to invade if the Kurds secede from Iraq. And the U.S. has been playing the Turkey card for the past four months in what is clearly a political signal to Barzani.

But the Kurds are hardly united on this. Iraq’s President, Jalal Talibani, is the other major Kurdish factional leader. He has cast his lot with the Iraqi government and does not support Barzani’s separatist agenda.

Update: According to Amb. Crocker, playing the "Turkey card" has been very effective in convincing the seperatist Barzani faction to embrace their Iraqi identity over dreams of a Kurdish state.

7. The Claim That Maliki Is "divider" who is "pursuing power for his coalition at the expense of other Shia parties and the Sunni minority" is an assertion with no reasonable basis in fact.

Rick Moran seems to rely on Maliki’s Basra offensive as the proof for this assertion, but I have already addressed that in Par. 1 above. None-the-less, Rick states that the "assumption" that Maliki could unite the country "has been slipping away for months." I do not think that reflects reality.

In September’s briefing to Congress, Ryan Crocker and General Petraeus spoke approvingly and at length of the efforts Maliki was making, within the limits of the power of his office, to unite the country and bring the Sunnis into the governmental fold. Since then, Maliki has overseen the passage of the de-Baathification law and the provincial election law. As Bill Rogio recently observed in one of a series of articles analyzing Iraqi politics:

While Americans and Iraqis still note significant flaws in Maliki’s leadership, many believe it has improved over the past year, citing his willingness to prosecute rogue elements (Shia as well as Sunni) outside of and within the government, and decisions on reconciliation and security issues that have caused political discord, including the various defections from his government coalition. At least one Iraqi politician offers more unqualified praise."Give Maliki a lot of credit for not looking at the polls, as they say in the US," said Entifadh K. Qanbar, former Deputy Military Attaché for Iraq and former member of the Iraqi National Congress, a political party. "He makes decisions that might not be popular at first, but [later] people start to realize he’s a strong man who does not get dragged left and right by people threatening him. Maliki is probably not an intellectual, but he’s a street guy, he knows [politics] well."

. . . While divisive politics and naked sectarian interest receive most of the blame for Iraq’s political inertia, government inefficiency, corruption, and administrative inexperience arguably pose larger problems.

Read the article.

Maliki has in many ways guided Iraq through one potential crisis after another since he took office. Indeed, his progress with his young government - it will not be two years old until May 20 - I find amazing. And there is much more on Maliki here from Amir Taheri.

Update: According to Ambassador Crocker's April 8 testimony, in large measure because of the Basra operation, Maliki has gained significant stature among all Iraqis for his willingness to take on all criminal elements, irrespective of their sect.

8. The long term threats to Iraq justifying continued American presence are not limited to al Qaeda.

Certainly, keeping al Qaeda out of Iraq is, as Rick Moran notes, a significant justification for maintaining a presence in Iraq. But it is far from the only one.

Update: According to the Congressional testimony of General Petraeus, the biggest problem now is Iran's attempts to "Lebanonize" Iraq, creating an Iraqi "Hezbollah" militia beholden to Iran that dominates the Shia portion of Iraq. Iran's training, funding and arming of "special groups" culled from Sadr's Mahdi Militia is the primary vehicle for that strategy. Within the past month, this has become both completely clear and a point of great concern for the Iraqi government. Also, taking control of Iraq remains al Qaeda's ultimate goal, and that if we leave Iraq precipitously, we can expect al Qaeda to make a resurgance and we can expect Iran to make a determined effort to dominate the Shia portion of Iraq. Allowing this to happen would drastically effect our national security.

Iran’s theocracy has always been the most significant long term threat to Iraq. The theocracy desires to spread its influence and control into Iraq, it does not want a functioning democracy in Iraq, and it does not want the legitimacy of its theocracy challenged by a democratic government next door that honors the millenium old Shia practice of quietism. And, of course, Iran does not want the U.S. on its borders. As Kimberly Kagan observed in the WSJ the other day:

Iran now causes the majority of the violence and instability in Iraq, a trend that began in July 2007, according to U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, when U.S. and Iraqi military offensives swept al Qaeda from its safe havens around Baghdad.

Read the article. Iran’s theocracy, on the verge of becoming nuclear armed and capable of supplying terrorists with materials to conduct nuclear terrorism against U.S. and Western targets, is potentially an existential threat. In the long term, focusing on al Qaeda to the exclusion of Iran misperceives the real contours of our national security threats.

Moreover, the draconian regimes of the Middle East are petri dishes for Islamic radicalism. Bush, in discussing the reasons to invade Iraq in 2003, stated several goals, the most important of which, as I believed then and now, was to establish an Arab democracy in the Middle East that would act as an examplar to stimulate change throughout the region. That reasoning was valid in 2003, and its validity has not diminished, though the price we are paying for it has become ever more dear in five years.

9 comments:

Soccer Dad said...

Very nice and thorough. This picture (and commentary by Bill Roggio emphasizes point 4 and 5, I think.

Dave Schuler said...

This is a very solid, thoughtful post and I think it deserves anb equally solid, thoughful response. I'm not sure I have the energy to produce one in detail but I do think I see where you're coming from.

As I see it the differences between our positions are almost entirely contained in one assumption and I think it's yours: that Nouri Maliki is essential to the success of our enterprise in Iraq. I don't believe that Nouri Maliki is Iraq or the Iraqi government and I'm concerned about relying to highly on him.

Dave Schuler said...

Gleaned this comment from Steven Den Beste over at Dafydd ab Hugh's place:

I think it's too soon to say who won. This is only the opening stage of the battle.

That's basically my position, too.

GW said...

As to Maliki, in December, 2006, I was convinced he had to go. By March, 2007, I found myself in agreement with Taheri - http://www.asharqalawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=2&id=8620

The jury is still out on Maliki, but at this point, I do have tremendous respect for the man.

Jimmy J. said...

Outstanding post! This is the type of informed argument that has made the blogosphere my source of news about the war on radical Islam.

Just added you to my daily must read list.

Ymarsakar said...


The jury is still out on Maliki, but at this point, I do have tremendous respect for the man.


I think like any individual, if you keep hammering him either he will break and fall apart, or become stronger.

It took a little longer hammering this leader into shape, but any President has to go through the same things.

I don't believe that Nouri Maliki is Iraq or the Iraqi government and I'm concerned about relying to highly on him.

You can always do a Diem and get rid of a leader you don't like. Whether you'll like what happens afterward, of course, is probably not a good thing to bet on.

Concerning the British... now we know what Bush bought when he gave Tony Blair the UN support(and the UN fiasco that went with it) Blair needed to convince his Parliament to side with us in Iraq. Bush bought some snake oil. Not like I didn't suspect after awhile.

Ymarsakar said...

This is a sort of reply to your post, Wolf. Link

The historical perspective of Basra and Steven Vincent was my personal take of things. That's where I started from and that's where I ended. All the military and political machinations were just stuff in between, of little import except in how they impacted the lives of the people.

GW said...

Soccer Dad, Jimmy J and Ymarsakar:

Thanks for the kind words.

Freedomnow said...

Al-Sadr always gets the benefit of the doubt while the U.S. and its allies are always guilty until proven innocent.

This is yet another defeat for Al-Sadr that is being spun as a victory by those who havent got a clue about what is really happening on the ground.