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Tilting at Windmills

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March 30, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

WHAT'S GOING ON IN BASRA?....CHAPTER XLII....Here's the latest entry in the "What's going on in Basra?" sweepstakes. Earlier today Muqtada al-Sadr's headquarters in Najaf released a statement, and Erica Goode of the New York Times provides the backstory:

The substance of the nine-point statement, released by Mr. Sadr on Sunday afternoon, was hammered out in elaborate negotiations over the past few days with senior Iraqi officials, some of whom traveled to Iran to meet with Mr. Sadr, according to several officials involved in the negotiations.

....Iraqi forces, backed up by American war planes and ground troops, have been in a stalemate with Shiite militias affiliated with Mr. Sadr in Basra for the past six days, in a military operation that has stirred harsh criticism of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

....Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki's political capital has been severely depleted by the campaign and that he is now in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival and now his opponent in battle, for a solution to the crisis.

In the statement, Mr. Sadr told militia members "to end all military actions in Basra and in all the provinces" and "to cooperate with the government to achieve security."

But he also made demands, including an amnesty for fighters in the Mahdi Army militia and the release of all imprisoned members of the Sadrist movement who have not been convicted of crimes. While the government has occasionally made small-scale releases of Sadrists, it has resisted earlier demands for more sweeping action.

Italics mine. If this is accurate, it suggests that it was Maliki who went to Sadr, not the other way around, and that he did it several days ago. What's more, it was Sadr who laid down the conditions for an end to the violence, not Maliki. This is pretty plainly at odds with the theory that Sadr's statement was a show of weakness, a sign that he was taking more damage than he could stand and was desperate for a truce.

In urban warfare like this it's frequently hard to figure out who's "won" and who's "lost." Often both sides lose. In this case, though, it certainly looks as if Maliki has lost more than Sadr. Both sides have taken casualties, but Sadr doesn't appear to have lost any ground; he's forced Maliki to come to him to ask for terms; he's successfully projected a statesmanlike image throughout; and politically he seems to be in stronger shape than before. Maliki, conversely, appears by all accounts to have launched an ill-timed mission with inadequate troops and then been unable to close the deal. The Iraqi army and the redoubtable Gen. Mohan al-Furayji, the much lauded leader of the regular forces in Basra, are both looking pretty banged up in the bargain too.

This could all change tomorrow, but right now that's about where we stand. It's increasingly hard to see how the Basra offensive ends up being a plus for Maliki and his allies. Including us, unfortunately.

UPDATE: Reed Hundt points out that there's a Tet Offensive quality to the operation in Basra: "Even if the American-backed Maliki-led government establishes some sort of order in Basra, Baghdad and other cities, the battles of the last week must have shaken the American media into a recognition that there's no peace at hand in Iraq, and certainly no widespread support for the Maliki government."

Maybe so. On the other hand, perhaps there's a bright side to this? The failure of a major offensive might finally convince Maliki and his allies that Sadr isn't going away and can't be defeated militarily. That might, in turn, convince them that they need to negotiate seriously with Sadr — and perhaps with the Sunni coalition as well — if they want to maintain any authority at all going forward. I don't have high hopes that this is the lesson Maliki will take away from the Battle of Basra, but you never know.

Kevin Drum 8:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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Looks like Sadr made his points after all-- he's got the strength to bring down the whole shebang whenever he wants. And that he's learned from what Hezbollah did to the Israelis last summer, so there's no realistic way to defeat his people militarily.

Posted by: Altoid on March 30, 2008 at 8:42 PM | PERMALINK

Maliki has to be finished. He may stay in office as a placeholder while everyone else jockey's around.

Of course, Fred Kagan's career should be over too. Only Monday he said:

"The first thing I want to say is that: The Civil War in Iraq is over. And until the American domestic political debate catches up with that fact, we are going to have a very hard time discussing Iraq on the basis of reality."

How copuld anyone be more wrong?

And then, President Bush's credibility should be gone, too. He called Maliki's offensive "a defining moment" two days ago, but insofar as it defined anything, it told us that everything that Buish has said about Iraq during the last six months or so has been wrong.

In reality, Maliki has probably been seriously and perhaps fatally wounded, but Kagan and Bush will suffer no consequences at all and will continue exactly as before.

Posted by: John Emerson on March 30, 2008 at 8:45 PM | PERMALINK

The one good thing going for Sadr is that he wants the US out of there.

Times reporters are exactly where in Basra? Embedded? On the streets? Or is everyone in the Green Zone in Baghdad? First hand reporting, I would guess, is hard to come by. And we're as ignorant as the dwellers in Plato's cave.

Posted by: Dr Wu on March 30, 2008 at 8:47 PM | PERMALINK

For the record: Defining moment.

Bush called the operation "a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq," saying the government is fighting criminals there. "It was just a matter of time before the government was going to have to deal with it," he said.

The president also hailed the operation as a sign of progress, emphasizing that the decision to mount the offensive was al-Maliki's.

"It was his military planning; it was his causing the troops to go from point A to point B," Bush said. "And it's exactly what a lot of folks here in America were wondering whether or not Iraq would even be able to do it in the first place. And it's happening."

Posted by: John Emerson on March 30, 2008 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK

Good Socratic shake-down. One irony stated by some reporter/commentator I don't recall: Maliki had been saying, he was out to get thuggish rogue elements and not fight the Mehdi Army directly. But if Sadr's negotiations are critical, then that can't be true after all. In any case, Sadr insists on keeping arms, and Maliki has lost face - not good to back down in the Near East (correct name for that region.)

BTW I was reviewing some of the excellent FrontLine shows about Bush going to war in Iraq. As disappointed in Bush as I have often been, it is interesting to note some points of sensible humanity revealed therein. When the intel on WMD was revealed, he said "Is that all you've got"? - then the "slam dunk" from Tenet. One cute little mark of corny devotion to keeping word even in wartime: someone told Bush Saddam was likely at a certain spot after the 48-hour ultimatum was announced but before it was over. Bush said, no, I promised him 48 hours! But one funny thing I remember about the ultimatum, is that first Bush (with Blair) had said, "Disarm", and a bit later came up with the "Leave Iraq (with sons)" within 48 hours. Anyone remember that, any thoughts?

Posted by: Neil B. on March 30, 2008 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: mhr on March 30, 2008 at 8:57 PM | PERMALINK

It's not clear (to me, anyway) that this is horrible news. On the upside, it looks like Sadr is open to a political accommodation. Whether that can actually happen, though, is beyond me. One thing that's clear is that we're not driving the bus - Iran is.

Posted by: chris on March 30, 2008 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

This is highly selective quotation from the NYT article, which definitely does not say that any Iraqi officials went to to Iran to negotiate on behalf of al-Maliki. The Iraqi government is not a presidential, "unitary executive" affair; it's a coalition so there are lots of officials with their own agendas. As the article does note, the Iraqi government hasn't necessarily accepted Sadr's demands. I suggest that complete agnosticism and skepticism are in order unless you (i) know Arabic and (ii) have spent time in Iraq, which I believe will preclude everyone here from any commentary.

Posted by: y81 on March 30, 2008 at 8:59 PM | PERMALINK

From the U.S. side, Maliki isn't relevant. It's the government of Iraq, whoever is in charge, that's relevant. If Maliki burns through whatever political capital he has left, there's somebody else who can take over.

Diem led to Minh. Minh led to Khanh. Khanh led to Ky. Ky led to Thieu. And so on. Just like in Vietnam, the U.S. doesn't care much who is nominally in charge, because in the end we are, or at least want to be. My own guess is that Maliki was forced or bribed into this attack (he had to realize it was, domestically speaking, politically dangerous) by the U.S., which implies problems altogether different from any schism between Shiites.

Posted by: Martin Gale on March 30, 2008 at 9:02 PM | PERMALINK

y81: Please. I overquoted from the Times just to make sure everyone got the context. "Senior Iraqi officials" pretty clearly indicates that Maliki was involved in the overtures to Sadr.

Maliki hasn't given up yet, that's true. But so far there's no indication that the Iraqi army is making any headway, either.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on March 30, 2008 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe Maliki really wasn't going after Sadr and the whole thing was a misunderstanding.

Posted by: boronx on March 30, 2008 at 9:05 PM | PERMALINK

I always agree with MHR when he says *,or ** or even ***, but never when his actual post stays up!

Posted by: R.L. on March 30, 2008 at 9:13 PM | PERMALINK

Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni lawmaker who oversaw mediation in Baghdad, said representatives from al-Maliki's Dawa Party and another Shiite party traveled to Iran to finalize talks with al-Sadr. Iran has close ties with both al-Sadr's movement and al-Maliki, who spent several years in exile there. Al-Nujaifi said the agreement was brokered by the commander of Iran's al-Quds Brigade, which is considered a terrorist organization by Washington.

I don't see any possible positive spin for Bush or Maliki here. Maliki attacked Sadr and was stalemated, Bush praised and supported Maliki's failed attack, and Iran brokered the agreement.

Posted by: John Emerson on March 30, 2008 at 9:23 PM | PERMALINK

Just a hop, skip and a jump to a new bold comment "tell the Americans to leave".

The writing is on wall, so where does Maliki stand? With Bushism or with the Iraqis.

It's been a long time coming, and really, WTF can Bush do, except to accept that his greedy Hydrocarbon Framework Laws is becoming obsolete rather quickly. Maliki has a someone that can rescue him from Bush and Cheney's little pipedream acid trip. I mean, really, the Saudis would NEVER even consider Bush's greedy deals, why then should Maliki? Sadr is offering freedom from Bush, so is Maliki smart enough to take it back to Bush with the comment, "I serve the people of Iraq, not Bush and Western oil interest", this is where freedom begins for the Iraqi people. They MUST enbrace the conflict to liberate themselves from a 100 year occupation.

Time to grow up and smell the lie.

Posted by: me-again on March 30, 2008 at 9:29 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, oh. Sadr has ordered his army to stand down and to work to improve Iraqi security. US liberals will be very upset- they have an election to win and a win in November depends on a US defeat in Iraq. But liberals are very patriotic, I hasten to add. They simply hate war.
Posted by: mhr on March 30, 2008 at 8:57 PM |

The Democrats took the house and congress in 2006 with no US defeat. Petraeus said this is an Iraq problem as its Shia vs Shia. Patriotism is not about war-mongering.

Posted by: on March 30, 2008 at 9:42 PM | PERMALINK

Did Jesus love war MHR?

Posted by: on March 30, 2008 at 9:43 PM | PERMALINK

Considering Bush is capable of the most ill conceived, poorly timed acts of pig-headed stupidity what are the odds he orders a hit on Sadr? I say pretty high.

Posted by: steve duncan on March 30, 2008 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: shiyabeng on March 30, 2008 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

Sadr just needed some time to distribute yard signs and make those fundraising calls he's been putting off to get the money for his radio and tv commercials. The election is in what? October? I hear they're looking at some tight primaries too.

Posted by: carsick on March 30, 2008 at 10:14 PM | PERMALINK

Ran into this lady, about 30 years old, at the ball park the other night. She was pontificating about Iraq and what a disaster it would be if Obama were elelcted and we were to leave because there would be a bloodbath.

I fianlly broke in to ask her how many Iraqis had already died as a result of the war. She said she didn't know. I asked if it were closer to 10 thousand or 200 thousand. Didn't know. Ever heard of the Lancet study? No. I said "thanks for caring so much." She didn't even detect the sarcasm.

Posted by: little ole jim on March 30, 2008 at 10:18 PM | PERMALINK

Extraordinary story via McClatchy Baghdad Bureau that indeed a delegation from the Da'wa Party and the Badr Brigade (ISCI) had gone to Qom, Iran and obtained the help/muscle of "Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Qods (Jerusalem) brigades of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps", who in turn persuaded M al-Sadr (who was in Qom as well, apparently) to call for a "cease-fire".
(story here:
Now, the infamous al-Qods(Quds) Brigades - as we know - have been long demonised by Petraeus et al as "instrumental" in arming/training "militants" in Iraq who engage the US military, even as the self-same group has strong ties with the present Iraqi "government" parties. If this isn't a more blatant illustration of who REALLY calls the shots in Iraq, I couldn't imagine what could surpass it.
Al-Sadr had to buckle under to a superior Shi'ite authority, as his own largely nationalist party clearly is at odds with both the Iranians (who are comfortable with the status quo, if it increases the chances of an American withdrawal), and with the US, who worry that al-Sadr may in fact catalyse a Shia-Sunni "all-Iraqi" movement opposed to both of the above foreign interlopers. And al-Maliki? A hopeless tool more than ever shown to be betoken to both Iran and the US. Quite an interesting turn indeed.

Posted by: barrisj on March 30, 2008 at 10:22 PM | PERMALINK

That might, in turn, convince them that they need to negotiate seriously with Sadr and perhaps with the Sunni coalition as well if they want to maintain any authority at all going forward.

Why would anyone negotiate seriously with Maliki? He is plainly a U.S. stooge with neither the authorization nor the power to deliver on any promises he might make. If serious negotiations were taking place, the subject would be U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The only role for Maliki would be ensuring that he isn't left behind.

Legitimacy is not a totally abstract concept. Malliki lacks it. Which makes negotiating a pretty empty exercise.

Posted by: Boolaboola on March 30, 2008 at 10:27 PM | PERMALINK

And why the right-wing blogosphere is hailing the cease-fire as a "win" for al-Maliki and his "government" is simply beyond me. If anything, the events of the past 24hrs are a clear win for Iran, if we are keeping score on such account, any way one spins it.

Posted by: barrisj on March 30, 2008 at 10:33 PM | PERMALINK

I called Tet first on blue girl's blog yesterday. However, if a Tet falls in the desert when Walter Cronkite is not around does it make a sound? Outlook unlikely.

Posted by: jerry on March 30, 2008 at 10:43 PM | PERMALINK

The RWB sees everything as a 'win' because they dont read FOX says. They are the sheep of Animal Farm.

Posted by: Jet on March 30, 2008 at 10:45 PM | PERMALINK

....they dont read, only listen to what FOX says.

Posted by: on March 30, 2008 at 10:47 PM | PERMALINK

Ive been comparing the Basra campaign with the Tet Offensive from its beginning, though not on a public blog. Thinking members of the media will make the connection -- that is why the right wingnuts are counterspinning so furiously.

Posted by: troglodyte on March 30, 2008 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

R.L.: I always agree with MHR when he says *,or ** or even ***

What about the time he said "-"?

troglodyte: Thinking members of the media

You're such a kidder!

Posted by: thersites on March 30, 2008 at 11:10 PM | PERMALINK

On the other hand, perhaps there's a bright side to this? The failure of a major offensive might finally convince Maliki and his allies that Sadr isn't going away and can't be defeated militarily. That might, in turn, convince them that they need to negotiate seriously with Sadr — and perhaps with the Sunni coalition as well — if they want to maintain any authority at all going forward.

Al-Maliki might see a light at the end of the tunnel but it's probably one of those internet tubes leading to a pile of gold in the alps.

Posted by: B on March 30, 2008 at 11:16 PM | PERMALINK

Tet? There was no negotiated settlement during Tet. Basra doesn't look anything like Hue because a good part of it is still standing.

It does seem passing odd that a majority of Americans want us to leave as do a majority of Iraqis.

Posted by: TJM on March 30, 2008 at 11:59 PM | PERMALINK

The clock is running out, the next administration of either party is not going to be as patient, so everyone involved in this mess is trying to maximize their position now before the changing of the guards. There will be many other such obscure moves before the end of the year. It must be extremely disappointing for both the U.S. and Iraqi governments that this particular manoeuvre was not more successful.

The situation is most definitely not like Tet in that it does not provide a simple, clear lesson for the American electorate. Its elusive meaning will affect only the much-despised "elite."

Posted by: J. Myers on March 31, 2008 at 12:52 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin seems dead wrong on this. From other accounts, it is appear that Sadr was beaten and has sued for peace. Kevin never ceases to look for the dark side and, in this instance, with virtually no fact information to support his speculation. Isn't it a clue that Sadr is hiding in Iran?

Posted by: brian on March 31, 2008 at 1:15 AM | PERMALINK

J. Myers: The situation is most definitely not like Tet in that it does not provide a simple, clear lesson for the American electorate. Its elusive meaning will affect only the much-despised "elite."

If the "elite" are as wrong about the current situation as they were about Tet, one wonders how they could ever feel superior to the American electorate. I guess "ignorance is bliss" might explain it.

Posted by: majarosh on March 31, 2008 at 1:23 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, Brian, al-Sadr was beaten, except for the fact that he never even formally ended his cease fire, lost no territory, wasn't required to give up his weapons, and made numerous demands upon Maliki for cessation of hostilities, all of which Maliki accepted.

Maliki, on the other hand, as the aggressor, sent emissaries to Iran to negotiate with Sadr, demanded surrender within 3 days, plus offering payola, promptly extended the deadline to ten days, watched his police forces mutiny, was forced to call in the calvary after the offensive "stalled", didn't capture any of the Sadrists' territory, accepted a brokered resolution after stating that he would only accept complete capitulation, etc. etc.

Ya, it's totally clear that Sadr "sued for peace" and that Maliki's factions were victorious. Maybe you should take a break from "Hot Air" or whatever that nonsense is.

Posted by: Mike Lamb on March 31, 2008 at 1:30 AM | PERMALINK

"Here's the latest entry in the "What's going on in Basra?" sweepstakes."

The winner of the sweepstakes gets a week's vacation in Basra. Second place gets two weeks. (with apologies to Philadephia)

Posted by: bobo the chimp on March 31, 2008 at 1:54 AM | PERMALINK

Those who do not learn the lessons of history...


"A radical Shia cleric by the name of al-Sadr led the revolt.

Artillery rounds fell around the golden dome of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, while al-Sadr's black-masked militia battled occupation forces in the streets of Iraq's holy cities.

The year is 1920, and the radical Shia cleric terrorising British occupying forces is Mohammad al-Sadr - whose great-grandson Moqtada al-Sadr is now leading a second revolt."

Posted by: Luther on March 31, 2008 at 2:02 AM | PERMALINK

What it means is that if you can win the opening of a civil war without having to fight, you should snag that deal!

Posted by: parrot on March 31, 2008 at 3:06 AM | PERMALINK

What's going on? Al Sadr is trying to prevent the slaughter of Shiites. Unlike any other political leader in the conflict, al Sadr cares about the lives of his constituents.

Malachi doesn't care about the lives of any Iraqis.

W. Bush doesn't care about the lives of anyone.

Posted by: Brojo on March 31, 2008 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

There you go once again -- gosh in these circumstances its tough to figure, like, ah, who won and who lost. How am I supposed to get some decent stats, can't we set this up like the NCAA tournament -- I mean, like I got a ball, we'll play on your court. Come on guys.

Posted by: dunnage on March 31, 2008 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

Nice site. Thank you!!

Posted by: Rimonabant on April 16, 2008 at 1:48 AM | PERMALINK

Nice site. Thanks:-)

Posted by: Tramadol on April 16, 2008 at 4:55 AM | PERMALINK



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