Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 30, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BASRA UPDATE....What's really going on in Basra? First, reporting on the latest in the fight between the government forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikia and the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, there's this from Ned Parker of the LA Times:

The Iraqi government's offensive in Basra has spelled the end to a seven-month cease-fire by Sadr's militia in all but name. In an ominous sign Saturday, Sadr in a rare TV interview praised armed resistance. Separately, he urged his followers to defy Maliki's ultimatum to surrender their weapons.

Sounds bad. But a few hours later (though the timing is unclear) Sadr issued a conciliatory nine-point plan that al-Jazeera says was "agreed with the Iraqi government." An Associated Press dispatch provides the following description of the announcement:

Al-Sadr's nine-point statement was issued by his headquarters in the holy city of Najaf and broadcast through loudspeakers on Shiite mosques. It said the first point was: "taking gunmen off the streets in Basra and elsewhere."

He also demanded that the Iraqi government stop "haphazard raids" and release security detainees who haven't been charged, two issues cited by his movement as reasons for fighting the government.

Followers handed out sweets in Baghdad's main Mahdi Army militia stronghold of Sadr City.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called the statement "positive and responsible." But he also warned in a telephone interview broadcast on Iraqi state TV. that security forces would continue to target those who don't follow the order.

"We expect a wide response to this call," he said. "After this announcement, anybody who targets the government and its institutions will be regarded ... as outlaws."

So apparently Sadr remains willing to continue his cease-fire, but only if Maliki stands down. In the meantime, he has no intention of giving up his weapons and has demanded the return of captured Mahdi Army fighters. Overall, this sounds like it's an offer to Maliki to declare victory and then leave town. Or else.

Just a guess, though. Sadr's intentions have been unusually opaque throughout this entire operation, and it's hard to say exactly what he's been up to in Basra. Taking an opportunity to allow someone else to purge rogue elements in his movement? Consolidating control over Basra? Burnishing his credentials as a responsible statesman? Just reacting to events? All of the above? Your guess is as good as mine — and as good as anyone else's as well, I think.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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Maybe he thinks he's losing.

Posted by: Mike K on March 30, 2008 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

"Maybe he thinks he's losing."

Doubtful, given that he's winning.

Posted by: Salvatore on March 30, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, it's pretty unclear whether Sadr is winning or losing -- or even how to define those terms. Both sides have taken a fair number of casualties, though not enough to really make a dent in their operations.

Basically, it looks like a stalemate to me. Maliki's forces really don't have much chance of crippling the Mahdi Army either in Basra or Baghdad, and neither side is all that anxious to keep taking casualties in an unwinnable fight. Beyond that, though, it's hard to say much more.

And what about Fadhila? Oddly, virtually none of the news coverage mentions them. Have they been lying low? Is Maliki giving them a pass? Or what?

Posted by: Kevin Drum on March 30, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

Looks like Sadr's going for the elections. Which he probably will win handily, now that Maliki's run back to Baghdad and conclusively demonstrated that he's a Bush-league loser.

Posted by: Tim H. on March 30, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

My impression is that it's a mistake to expect any sort of clarity WRT intentions/capabilities/positioning. It's a heavily armed anarchy with random violence that ebbs and flows. All the sides would like to wipe out the others but none are strong enough to do so.

The U.S. isn't strong enough to impose order either, or to wipe out any of the opposing sides. Meanwhile we pour buckets of money into maintaining this pointless and ineffective occupation. For murky reasons we have allied with the Iranian's favorite faction while vilifying Iran. We can't leave until 2009 because the Chimp has staked his ego on not admitting the invasion was a horrific mistake even though everyone with working brain cells can see that it was. John McCain has committed to continuing the same insane policy if we elect him. Have I missed anything?

Posted by: jimBOB on March 30, 2008 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, a stalemate is a win for the Mahdi army, given that hostilities were initiated with the express purpose of dislodging them.

Posted by: Salvatore on March 30, 2008 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

Your guess is as good as mine

I am quite certain that nevertheless it would be unpatriotic to oppose whatever line Bush takes on this. And that the Democrats will therefore cave.

Posted by: hespan on March 30, 2008 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

"Your guess is as good as mine — and as good as anyone else's as well, I think."

I'm sure there are people, somewhere, who know what's going on. Not so many in the US, of course. Even then, I'd bet our intelligence program has people pretty close to Sadr's circle, but all you'll ever hear from our government is Sadr is resisting the forces of freedom. They're outlaws, maybe even terrorists.

I wonder, if Sadr has overwhelming support in Basra, a city of 2 million people, can Maliki ever find and eliminate tens of thousands of Mahdi fighters?

Posted by: luci on March 30, 2008 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

It's probably a mistake to think that Sadr has a strategy that he is capable of imposing on the entire organization that nominally holds him up as its leader.

This might help to explain a recurrent source of tension between the government and Sadr, the periodic raids on and arrests of Mahdi Army members, especially around Baghdad. Ignatius writes in the Washington Post today of a recent communication from Sadr to the American command, allegedly claiming that the Mahdi Army in Baghdad was no longer under his control, but instead under Iran's. Well, maybe this happened and maybe it didn't; at any rate it's probable that loyalties among gangs associated with the Mahdi Army vary in different parts of Baghdad, with different local leaders, and at different times. Iraqi and American forces have very likely arrested a number of Mahdi Army officials that Sadr (rightly or wrongly) saw as loyal to him, something the government and American forces might not have known at the time.

A good question is, when does Sadr believe his interests are best served by fighting and when by not fighting. I don't have a clue as to the answer. He may want to stop fighting if he thinks his Mahdi Army is losing. On the other hand, he might want to stop fighting in areas where the Mahdi Army is winning, if he doubted local leaders' ultimate loyalty to him and wanted to deny them a victory. Or he might want to keep fighting if he thought he was winning, or if Mahdi Army factions he suspects of acting on their own are taking punishment from American, British, or government forces.

Iraqi government forces have some units with multiple loyalties, and it appears that (in southern Iraq anyway) not all the forces fighting on the government's side are on the government's payroll. I'm just thinking out loud here, but it would be surprising if the same were not true of the forces we think of as being under Sadr's leadership.

Posted by: Zathras on March 30, 2008 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Juan Cole cites reports that the Sadrist proposal was proposed by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Sadr is reported to be in Iran, studying for his Ayatollah degree. Who's on first?

Posted by: Etaoin Shrdlu on March 30, 2008 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

My guess? These are calculated moves to enhance Sadr's prestige.

The only way he can really lose is for his militia get drawn into an open shootout and slaughtered by US troops. Thus, the cease fire. But the cease fire made him look weak. And Maliki took advantage of the cease fire to launch an offensive, with the goal of consolidating his own power in the Shiite community.

Sadr's response has been to have his people escalate the violence while remaining personally above the fray. Then he steps in and offers a new cease fire that restores the status quo ante, but also "proves" that he can stare down Maliki. It consolidates his own political position. And as the Maliki government continues to fail to bring about much positive change in the day-to-lives of Iraqi Shiites, and the unpopular occupation continues, Sadr's prestige will rise.

That's what I think he's he's aiming at.

Posted by: AJL on March 30, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

"Sadr's intentions have been unusually opaque throughout this entire operation."

Hmm, methinks the stereotype of the inscrutable oriental has raised its ugly turban.

There's no mystery here. He's just cementing his recent gains.

Posted by: lampwick on March 30, 2008 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

from swimming freestyle:

"So, who did win this week? It's probably fair to say losers don't issue demands and winners don't accept those demands so readily."


Posted by: Jay McDonough on March 30, 2008 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

I'd say that while it may be presumptuous to say Sadr won, it's pretty clear Maliki - and the U.S. who backs him - have lost. Maliki failed to meet his objectives, demonstrated the police and the army are not up to the job of imposing his government's will, and that Maliki stays in power only so long as the U.S. continues to prop him up. Sadr may not control Iraq, but he's demonstrated he's not going to be casually brushed aside.

Think anyone is going to ask General Petraeus when he appears before Congress why his efforts to train up Iraqi military and police forces have gone so wrong? Or, when the national reconciliation the surge was supposed to buy time for will actually occur?

And, if anyone does ask, will the press even bother to report it?

Posted by: xaxnar on March 30, 2008 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

Sadr has greatly enhanced his standing just before Iraqi elections. He's also sent a loud signal to America that we're backing the wrong horse, thereby possibly influencing the American election. I have to hand it to the guy (and/or his Iranian advisors): it wasn't a military move at all but a deft political one.

Posted by: dalloway on March 30, 2008 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

From Tim H.

Looks like Sadr's going for the elections. Which he probably will win handily,....

Which is exactly why he is a target. Unlike Maliki, Sadr is not on friendly terms with Iran and is thoroughly anti al Queda. So we should like him, but as a rabid nationalist he also wants the US out. So we don't like him.

The US hates elections that it's proxies don't win. Consider this a poor attempt at the first round of campaigning for Iraq's provisional elections.

Posted by: Keith G on March 30, 2008 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Force is not to solve any problem in Iraq or any
other nation, let us come and reason together
is the key word; Iraqis are brothers and sisters,
they resent when we punish or kill one of their own, just like we don't allow our neighbors to
discipline our children and as a brain surgeon
that will not operate on his own child.
This is what Iraq wants America to do, but in
reality it will not work, they have to bring
their enemies to govern their own country,don't
forget, long before America existed, they were
fighting against anyone that it was a thread to
them, they can and they will find a solution
to their own problems, We cannot dictate to them
what they must do because it is not in their

Posted by: Elio M. Fernandez on March 30, 2008 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

The only reason Sadr is having his troops stand down is because U.S. Special Forces are helping the Iraqi army in Basra. The Iraqi army couldn’t defeat the Little Sisters of the Blind in face-to-face combat for fuck’s sake.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on March 30, 2008 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

Hmmm...grievances against haphazard raids and holding people without charges, sounds freedom-loving and American.

Posted by: Jimm on March 30, 2008 at 5:19 PM | PERMALINK

Even more ironically, at least in his public communications, Al-Sadr has consistently supported a unified Iraq, not politically partitioned by faction or religious belief.

Posted by: Jimm on March 30, 2008 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

Well spoken, Elio...

Posted by: Detroit Dan on March 30, 2008 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK

The only reason Sadr is having his troops stand down is because U.S. Special Forces are helping the Iraqi army in Basra. The Iraqi army couldn’t defeat the Little Sisters of the Blind in face-to-face combat for fuck’s sake.

Sadr always seems to have the gift of good timing (and perhaps better said strategy) - time and again he has humiliated efforts to minimize his movement, by a surprising show of strength, but always seems to have a sense of when to back off again too before our (American) military might has the chance to reconcentrate and come to bear.

Posted by: Jimm on March 30, 2008 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

I will speculate that the buildup of ships and carriers has little to do with Iran but taking control of Basra, the refineries, the ports, the waterway and the oilfields to stop the oil smuggling that is financing the militants such as Sadr.

Posted by: Jet on March 30, 2008 at 5:49 PM | PERMALINK

These are calculated moves to enhance Sadr's prestige.

Yes, and I think all along that Sadr had a much better grasp of what his capabilities were than Maliki. He took this opportunity to show them and to make political gains for the upcoming elections. Anarchy and mayhem weren't in the cards from the beginning, just enough to give them a taste.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on March 30, 2008 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK
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