Iraq: Maliki’s Gamble

28 Mar 2008

Iraq: Maliki’s Gamble

By Gwynne Dyer

The rhetoric is triumphalist, and the story-line is simple and consistent. “We have made up our minds to enter this battle and we will continue till the end. No retreat,” said Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday. “As we speak Iraqis are waging a tough battle against militia fighters and criminals in Basra, many of whom have received arms and training and funding from Iran,” said President George W. Bush in Dayton, Ohio. But the reality is less persuasive.

The offensive in Basra could only have been launched with the support of the United States, since Prime Minister Maliki has admitted that he “cannot move a company of troops” without American consent. It is really aimed mainly at the Mahdi army, the militia that backs Moqtada al-Sadr. And it is not likely to succeed.

Moqtada al-Sadr is the main rival to Maliki’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its associated Badr militia for the loyalty of Iraq’s Shia majority. Basra is a key battleground for this struggle, not only because its two million people are almost all Shia, but because most of Iraq’s oil is produced nearby and exported through Basra. The militias need money, and Basra, with its flow of cash and oil, is the best place to cream it off.

The Mahdi and Badr militias have been waging a low-intensity battle in Basra for control of these resources for more than a year, and you can see why Maliki would want to use the army to tip the balance in favour of his side. You can also see why the Bush administration wants Maliki to win, for his party supports — indeed, depends on — a continued US military presence in Iraq, while Moqtada al-Sadr insists that all US troops go home. But it’s harder to see why they thought Maliki could win.

The Mahdi militia in Basra is well enough armed to fight the Iraqi army to a stand-still in the narrow streets of the sprawling slums where most of its supporters live. Moreover, Maliki has only committed 15,000 soldiers to the battle in Basra, which isn’t very many given how street-fighting swallows up troops. (He also has 15,000 heavily armed police available for the battle, in theory, but Basra police have close connections with the local militias and cannot be counted on to fight them.)

At the time of writing, four days into the battle in Basra, the Iraqi army’s offensive seems to have stalled, while new fronts have opened up in other cities across the south of Iraq and in Baghdad, already the scene of massive protests by Moqtada al-Sadr’s supporters. The “ceasefire” that the Mahdi army declared seven months ago, which played a big part in the apparent success of the American “surge” in troops numbers in Iraq, is fraying badly.

Unless Maliki and the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, have reliable intelligence that the Mahdi organisation is less united and determined than it seems to be, this offensive doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially from the point of view of the White House.

As it was, the “surge” looked likely to deliver what the Bush administration most wanted: an apparent stabilisation in Iraq that would let it leave office without having to admit failure. The more wordly-wise members of the administration would initially have seen this simply as a device to put the ultimate blame for failure on the incoming administration instead, but maybe they have started to believe their own propaganda.

The “stabilisation is more apparent than real, for two reasons. The new Sunni “allies” of the United States include a lot of people who were trying to kill American troops a year ago, and may well return to that activity once they have dealt with the “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” extremists who were giving the Sunni resistance a bad name. And on the Shia side, Moqtada al-Sadr was standing by to push out Maliki’s American-backed government as soon as US troop numbers in Iraq fell.

Three months ago, cynical advisers to President Bush might have said “So what?” The bad things would happen early in the next administration, which looked almost certain to be Democratic, and Bush would get away clean. But now it looks (at least to some Republicans) as though Senator John McCain has a real chance to win the presidency and continue Bush’s military commitment in Iraq.

Maybe they said to themselves: let’s not leave McCain a ticking time bomb. Let’s go after Moqtada al-Sadr, starting with his cash flow, which depends heavily on his militia in Basra. (Sadr does not get arms or money from Iran, and the Bush people must know that despite what they say in public.) So Maliki got his marching orders, and the battle for Basra began.

If this is what happened, it is a classic case of hope triumphing over experience. The Iraqi army probably cannot beat the Mahdi militia in open battle in Iraq’s big cities, and it may be left severely discredited if it tries. The US army certainly can beat Sadr’s militia, just as it has done in two previous rounds of fighting, but that would be followed by a reversion to the guerilla attacks that were causing such high US casualties before Sadr’s ceasefire.

Or maybe Petraeus and Maliki know something about the weaknesses of the Mahdi army that nobody else does. They have about a week to prove it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The Mahdi militia…badly”)