Thursday, April 10, 2008

Taheri On Basra and Iran's Failed Gambit

Iranian columnist Amir Taheri sees the Basra operation and related uprisings in the Shia south as a bid by Iran to establish their dominance in Iraq that failed at the hands of PM Maliki, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and the integrated Iraqi Army. It may prove to be a fatal miscalculation.

This from Amir Taheri:

A GAMBLE that proved too costly.

That's how analysts in Tehran describe events last month in Basra. Iran's state-run media have de facto confirmed that this was no spontaneous "uprising." Rather, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tried to seize control of Iraq's second-largest city using local Shiite militias as a Trojan horse.

Tehran's decision to make the gamble was based on three assumptions:

* Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wouldn't have the courage to defend Basra at the risk of burning his bridges with the Islamic Republic in Iran.

* The international force would be in no position to intervene in the Basra battle. The British, who controlled Basra until last December, had no desire to return, especially if this meant getting involved in fighting. The Americans, meanwhile, never had enough troops to finish off al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, let alone fight Iran and its local militias on a new front.

* The Shiite clerical leadership in Najaf would oppose intervention by the new Iraqi security forces in a battle that could lead to heavy Shiite casualties.

The Iranian plan - developed by Revolutionary Guard's Quds (Jerusalem) unit, which is in charge of "exporting the Islamic Revolution" - aimed at a quick victory. To achieve that, Tehran spent vast sums persuading local Iraqi security personnel to switch sides or to remain neutral.

The hoped-for victory was to be achieved as part of a massive Shiite uprising spreading from Baghdad to the south via heartland cities such as Karbala, Kut and al-Amarah. A barrage of rockets and missiles against the "Green Zone" in Baghdad and armed attacks on a dozen police stations and Iraqi army barracks in the Shiite heartland were designed to keep the Maliki government under pressure.

To seize control of Basra, Quds commanders used units known as Special Groups. These consist of individuals recruited from among the estimated 1.8 million Iraqi refugees who spent more than two decades in Iran during Saddam Hussein's reign. They returned to Iraq shortly after Saddam's fall and started to act as liaisons between Quds and local Shiite militias.

In last month's operation, Quds commanders used the name and insignia of the Mahdi Army, a militia originally created by the maverick cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, as a cover for the Special Groups.

Initially, Quds commanders appeared to have won their bet. Their Special Groups and Mahdi Army allies easily seized control of key areas of Basra when more than 500 Iraqi security personnel abandoned their positions and disappeared into the woodwork.

Soon, however, the tide turned. Maliki proved that he had the courage to lead the new Iraqi Security Force (ISF) into battle, even if that meant confronting Iran. The ISF showed that it had the capacity and the will to fight.

. . . Led by Gen. Mohan al-Freiji, the Iraqi force sent to Basra was the largest that the ISF had put together since its creation five years ago. This was the first time that the ISF was in charge of a major operation from start to finish and was fighting a large, well-armed adversary without US advisers.

. . . The expected call from the Najaf ayatollahs to stop "Shiite fratricide" failed to materialize. Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the top cleric in Iraq, gave his blessings to the Maliki-launched operation. More broadly, the Shiite uprisings in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf and other cities that Quds commanders had counted upon didn't happen. The "Green Zone" wasn't evacuated in panic under a barrage of rockets and missiles.

After more than a week of fighting, the Iraqis forced the Quds commanders to call for a cease-fire through Sadr. The Iraqi commander agreed - provided that the Quds force directly guaranteed it. To highlight Iran's role in the episode, he insisted that the Quds force dispatch a senior commander to finalize the accord.

The Iran-backed side lost more than 600 men, with more than 1,000 injured. The ISF lost 88 dead and 122 wounded.

Some analysts suggest this was the first war between new Iraq and the Islamic Republic. If so, the Iraqis won.

. . . Tehran tried to test the waters in Basra and, as an opportunist power, would've annexed southern Iraq under a quisling administration had that been attainable at a low cost. Once it became clear that the cost might be higher than the Quds force expected, Tehran opted to back down.

Yet this was just the first round. The struggle for Iraq isn't over.

Read the entire article. I agree the struggle for Iraq is hardly over. But I think the complexion of the fight may have hit a major turning point yesterday when Grand Ayatollah Sistani called on the Mahdi Army to turn over their weapons to the government. If the special groups and Iran can not longer operate under the cover of the Mahdi Army, it will isolate them and make it much easier for the Iraqi government to target these elements. I think Iran's gambit in Basra may well prove a fatal miscalculation for their dreams of "Lebanonizing Iraq."

1 comment:

Dinah Lord said...

This is awesome. I pray that a turning point has truly been reached, all the while remembering that "patience is a virtue which highly adorns women". Don't want to rush things.