Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BASRA UPDATE....So how are things going in Basra? According to the New York Times, not too badly:

In a rare success, forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki have largely quieted the city, to the initial surprise and growing delight of many inhabitants who only a month ago shuddered under deadly clashes between Iraqi troops and Shiite militias.

Just as in Baghdad, Iraqi and Western officials emphasize that the gains here are "fragile," like the newly planted roadside saplings that fail to conceal mounds of garbage and pools of foul-smelling water in the historic port city's slums.

....Government forces have now taken over Islamic militants' headquarters and halted the death squads and "vice 'enforcers' " who attacked women, Christians, musicians, alcohol sellers and anyone suspected of collaborating with Westerners.

I don't have anything special to say about this, but it's tentative good news and I wanted to pass it along. We'll have to wait and see whether this is a temporary lull or a permanent change.

Kevin Drum 1:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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It reads like standard US propaganda to me.

It's always possible that the NYT is accurate this time, I suppose, but the turning-the-corner tone with the optimistic small businessman anecdote is exactly the same as the past 5 years of hopeful reporting.

Posted by: ferg on May 12, 2008 at 2:07 AM | PERMALINK

If it was truly numerous rival gangs, none can stand up to a military force and they couldn't unite because of previous turf wars. The question is where have al Sadr's guys gone? Their pattern has been to lay low and re-emerge later or elsewhere.

The real story may be that Maliki and al-Hakim and Sunni leaders are finally creating govt alliances, so al Sadr's guys are facing a united power greater than they can counter head-on without massive casualties. I'm sure most folks are simply war weary and ready to accept any leadership that offers a cessation in violence and the chance for some infrastructure rebuilding.

It could be a cat and mouse game... really, who knows? Until the fighting's over in all reasons, I see no reason for optimism. Bullshit central has been feeding us too long to rely on anything till weeks of confirmation come in. I mean, if it wasn't for Juan Cole, Chris Allbritton and a few other sources, I'd doubt that Iraq itself exists because Bush says it does.

I guess, finally, Bush Derangement Syndrome has infected me, because I'm so damn angry about all the needless murders in the name of nothing but war profiteering

Posted by: Kevin Hayden on May 12, 2008 at 2:32 AM | PERMALINK

I was under the impresion that Mahdi Army weren't the only bunch of extremist enforcers in Iraq - aren't there a lot of the same kind of crowd (maybe a bit more less nationalistic) in the government-allied Badr brigades? Maybe the new lot are just taking a few weeks to set up operations, wait till the extra foreign troops and journalists are gone etc? This story does seem to reflect one of the more common ideas held in the American press, which is that these kind of religious enforcers are crazies who just spring up out of nowhere and have no real support, whereas in reality they seem to be a result of a large undercurrent in Iraqi society

Posted by: JohnTh on May 12, 2008 at 3:13 AM | PERMALINK

We'll have to wait and see whether this is a temporary lull or a permanent change.

In the short term, it's probably as permanent as the ISF's 33,000 boots on the ground in Basra. In the long term, it's dependent on both the ISF's ability to maintain those force levels, and the Iraqi government's willingness and ability to provide basic services in troubled areas.

Sadr didn't get his power simply because he's charismatic, but because he could provide security (more-or-less) and services to the poor--which is most of Iraq these days--that the government could not, or would not, provide. If the Iraqi government can't or won't step in, they will lose support (again), and the troubles will continue.

And let's not forget the backdrop of the October elections. I expect there will be many promises to help troubled areas in the run-up to the elections (many already have been made) in order to reduce the influence of militias, especially Sadr and the Mehdi Army. However, if the government does not follow through on those promises, there will be hell to pay.

Posted by: has407 on May 12, 2008 at 5:03 AM | PERMALINK

Boycott the Clinton bloggers.

Posted by: Boycott on May 12, 2008 at 5:17 AM | PERMALINK

70% of Iraqis still want the U.S. out - NOW! End the occupation immediately and begin following the Constitution again. No more undeclared wars by Congress.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on May 12, 2008 at 6:11 AM | PERMALINK

Comments read like standard self-hating American propaganda to me.

Posted by: Mr. Forward on May 12, 2008 at 7:16 AM | PERMALINK

Why do you always quote the NY Times when it comes to the situation in Iraq? There are so many other sources out there that are more accurate and better informed that its like quoting the Sydney Morning Herald on Washington politics. In a global media its far from the best source.

Posted by: swio on May 12, 2008 at 7:48 AM | PERMALINK

The United States is not in the Middle East to defeat Islamic extremism or to champion secularism. If it was it would have invaded Saudi Arabia which has "death squads and "vice 'enforcers' who attacked women, Christians, musicians, alcohol.." The government of Saddam Hussein was far more secular than the government elected to power in Iraq after the US invasion.

There does seem to be some consolidation of power in Iraq and Sadr seems to be on the outside. The competing militias are being reduced from a dozen to a half-dozen. The bit about the triumph of secularism is for home consumption and has little to do the reality on the ground or Dick Cheney's geopolitical interests. It is added to send average American's the message that US forces are fighting for something virtuous and that Iraq has something to do with the attacks of 9/11. There is no global war on Islamic fundamentalism except where it is against Western economic interests. Where it is in line with the West, like in Saudi Arabia, it is fine.

Posted by: bellumregio on May 12, 2008 at 8:00 AM | PERMALINK


This can't be true!!! Bushhitler is still in office. There MUST be only failure!!!!

I read it in the New York Times!

Posted by: section9 on May 12, 2008 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

That's not BushHitler. That's just an ordinary everyday garden variety sociopath.

Posted by: Kevin Hayden on May 12, 2008 at 9:43 AM | PERMALINK

So... if this story is true, then this guy is in jail then?

Posted by: Bad on May 12, 2008 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

Christian fundies getting more politically extreme.

McCain's Christian Problem

Posted by: Hah! on May 12, 2008 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, I'm sure it's permanent. (rolls eyes).

Posted by: Noam Sane on May 12, 2008 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

The next six months will be crucial.

Posted by: AJB on May 12, 2008 at 10:56 AM | PERMALINK

This is clearly one benefit of an impending Obama victory. As an America with a timeline for withdrawl becomes more palpable to Iraqis, they will take on more and more of the responsibility for shouldering the peace and begin to take a more forward view of their own country.

Posted by: Goran on May 12, 2008 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

Also as Obama's November victory becomes more certain, there will be subtle changes in US commanders as they predict that the mission will shift from dividing Iraq for prolonged domination to unifying Iraq for stability in independence.

Posted by: Goran on May 12, 2008 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

If true, that means all's not lost in Iraq!

Posted by: KYJurisDoctor on May 12, 2008 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

Any Friedman Unit, now, things should be clearing up for our forces...

Any Friedman Unit...

Posted by: Swan on May 12, 2008 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

It reads like standard US propaganda to me.

Being subjected to criticism like this is part of the price the US media must pay for Judy Miller and all the rest.

Assuming, for purposes of discussion, that this is not propaganda; how could we establish it as such?

And where do we go to for reliable information?

Posted by: Duncan Kinder on May 12, 2008 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

al-Sadr and al-Maliki agreed to a truce in Basra, with the Sadrist fighters standing down. How would that count as some kind of government victory?

Especially since government forces were stopped in their tracks and required strong backup from US and British units.

I'd love it if the Times story were true, but it sounds more like we're still looking for magical ponies.

Posted by: zak822 on May 12, 2008 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

Assuming, for purposes of discussion, that this is not propaganda; how could we establish it as such?

Presenting data instead of pro-government anecdotes would be a start. At a basic level, what percentage of Basra residents support Sadr? Oppose al-Maliki's goverment?

The pro-government sources were a restaurant owner, four college students, a wealthy businessman, and a policeman. (Plus two official government sources.) The single anti-government quote was a pro-Sadr preacher. In other words, anecdotal sources which might be comforting and believable to the middle-class NYT reader, but not representative of the Basra population.

Not a single quote from a working stiff, or the unemployed, and no polling data.

In other words, the article says nothing about what the population of Basra as a whole believes, when the entire premise of the article is "growing delight of 'many' inhabitants". But interviews with students and businessmen does not turn 'many' into 'most'.

Posted by: ferg on May 12, 2008 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

There is a further problem. From what I have read for a long time, the government and police in Basra are completely dominated by SIIC, Sadr's main islamist opponents. Secular politicans have all been assasinated or run out of town. So it seems pretty sure that once the ISF leave, it will be back to islamism, and in particular the form most friendly with Iran.

Posted by: bobo the chimp on May 12, 2008 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK

Kudos to Kevin for being willing to post some good news from Iraq, especially since in the first few days of the Iraqi army move into Basra, Kevin was repeatedly posting the sky is falling speculation. It would be better if he also acknowledged the error of his earlier posts, but the honestly and openmindedness in posting about good news is refreshing.

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