Anyone who is cheering on what is happening in Iraq probably also roots for crashes at NASCAR races and train derailments.
Admittedly, the situation is so confused and bloggers and the MSM are spinning the news to such dizzying lengths that getting a semi-clear picture of what is actually transpiring in Basra, in Kut, even in Baghdad has become a guessing game.
We know that after some initial success, the Iraqi army is bogged down in a battle for Basra that has degenerated into running gun battles with Mehdi militiamen who appear to be equally or better armed than the US supplied government troops.
There is word that American air power is being employed to help the Iraqi army:
The air strikes are the clearest sign yet that the coalition forces have been drawn into the fighting in Basra. Up until Thursday night, the American and British air forces insisted that the Iraqis had taken the lead, though they acknowledged surveillance support for the Iraqi Army.
The assault on militia forces in Basra has been presented by President Bush and others as an important test for the American-trained Iraqi forces, to show that they can carry out a major ground operation against insurgents largely on their own.
But the air strikes suggest that the Iraqi military has been unable to successfully rout the militias, despite repeated assurances by American and Iraqi officials that their fighting capabilities have vastly improved.
A failure by the Iraqi forces to secure the port city of Basra would be a serious embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and for the Iraqi Army, as well as for American forces who are eager to demonstrate that the Iraqi units they have trained can fight effectively.
The airstrikes were against a “Mahdi stronghold” and a mortar position, according to the Times who quoted American military sources.
Bombing in residential areas nearly always results in collateral damage to surrounding buildings. This almost certainly isn’t making residents of Basra very happy to see us.
But the tell here is the fact that we bombed a “mortar team” for the Iraqi army.
Now I hate to get into areas where my expertise is limited but don’t Americans learn how to take a fortified position in basic training? Isn’t that like “Soldiering 101?” Correct me if I’m wrong but why, after three years of training can’t Iraqi troops manage this feat on their own?
I would take that as a sign that the Iraqi army, while not throwing down their arms and fleeing in terror, are not up to the challenge of operating independently yet. And this begs the question of why Prime Minister Maliki gave the go-ahead for this operation?
Daniel Davies asks some questions that I haven’t seen anywhere else:
John is right to be suspicious of this kind of “this looks like such a stupid idea that he must have some private information that explains it all” argument, and there was always the possibility that in fact, it just looked crazy because it was crazy – either a reckless desperation gamble, a wholly unrealistic assessment of the situation or a calculated attempt to precipitate enough of a crisis to force the USA to commit more resources. With the Maliki forces seemingly having made no progess toward their objective in Basra, and with rioting and curfews in Baghdad and actual armed battles in Kut, it looks like Maliki’s gamble is going badly wrong. Napoleon’s maxim is relevant here; “if you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna!” – having picked the fight, Maliki absolutely had to win it, and failure here is likely to mean political failure too.
It’s hard to see a good way out of this. John’s prediction record here is substantially better than mine, and he thinks that we settle back down to a lower-energy state of affairs, with some kind of renegotiated ceasefire, but I’m now less optimistic than that. It seems to me that Moqtada al-Sadr’s control over the movement bearing his name is weakening; the man himself is in Qom, Iran, studying Islamic scripture and trying to stay out of trouble. Meanwhile, the Mehdi Army has clearly been getting more and more restless over the six months of ceasefire and still seems to me to be potentially quite fissiparous. The really interesting question to which I don’t know the answer is; to what extent do the uprisings across Shia Iraq reflect different branches of the Mehdi Army supporting one another, and to what extent are they local flare-ups which were precipitated by the attack on Basra but not coordinated responses to it?
First, I think going after the Mahdi was the next logical step for the government to take if they were ever going to have a “monopoly on violence” in the country. Basra and most of the surrounding towns and villages were lawless outposts ruled by gangs, rogue militias, and party warlords who vied for control in a low intensity conflict that the Brits couldn’t handle because of their sensitivity to suffering too many casualties. It would be a huge boost to the government’s credibility with Sunnis and many Shias if they could reduce the power of the Mahdi in Basra while gaining control of the region.
Second, Maliki is no doubt looking to the provincial elections in the fall and feared al-Sadr’s influence and especially his ability to rig elections in the south to give the Mahdi a favorable outcome. Pure power politics has its uses when everyone has a gun.
Third, I have little doubt that the Americans have been urging this course of action on Maliki for a long time. Not only will emasculating the Mahdi help the security situation in Iraq, but a demonstration of armed prowess by the Iraqi army would be good for the American electorate and especially GOP Congressmen who are getting antsy about funding the war with so little in the way of proof that the Iraqi military is coming along and will be able to handle security well enough that we can start to draw down our forces significantly.
But it is hard to see how this can end up a net positive for Maliki unless he destroys the Mahdi Army. That’s becaue any negotiated end to the fighting with the Mahdi still in Basra will be spun as a victory by al-Sadr – just as he spun his defeat in Najaf as a victory over the Americans.
This is from a Mahdi militiaman who was on the Basra police force and who took off his uniform to join his comrades in this fight against the Iraqi army:
“We know the outcome of the fighting in advance because we already defeated the British in the streets of Basra and forced them to withdraw to their base,” Abu Iman told The Times.
“If we go back a bit, everyone remembers the fight with the US in Najaf and the damage and defeat we inflicted on them. Do you think the Iraqi Army is better than those armies? We are right and the Government is wrong. [Nouri al] Maliki [the Iraqi Prime Minister] is driving his Government into the ground.”
According to the Times Online, several hundred of these policemen (out of 10,000) switched sides – not unexpected given the level of infiltration by the militias in the police force but worrying nonetheless.
With fighting breaking out in several other southern cities, Maliki may have bitten off more than the Iraqi army can chew. And that doesn’t include the fighting in Baghdad where the Iraqis aren’t even attempting to enter Sadr City, leaving that job to the US military:
U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.
Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of American weapons, along with the Mahdi Army’s AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.
The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, saying death squads, criminal gangs and rogue militias were the targets. The Mahdi Army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite rival of Maliki, appeared to have taken the brunt of the attacks; fighting spread to many southern cities and parts of Baghdad.
We’ve used our airpower in Sadr City as well – a move that saved American lives I’m sure but I am equally certain that bombing a residential area also made a poor impression on the people who live there. And for the fourth day in a row, the Green Zone is getting hit hard:
Baghdad was on virtual lockdown Friday as a tough new curfew ordered everyone off the streets of the Iraqi capital and five other cities until 5 p.m. Sunday.
That restriction didn’t stop someone from firing rockets and mortar rounds into the capital’s heavily fortified International Zone, commonly known as the Green Zone. One slammed into the office of one of Iraq’s vice presidents, Tareq al-Hashemi, killing two guards.
An American government worker also was killed in rocket and mortar attacks Thursday in the International Zone.
U.S. warplanes pounded Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood Friday, killing six people and wounding 10.
Who is doing the shooting? Please don’t ask the American State Department:
U.S. State Department official Richard Schmierer said the rocket attacks appeared to be coming from fighters affiliated with al-Sadr who were “trying to make a statement” about the government offensive in Basra. He blamed the violence on “marginal extremist elements” who have associated themselves with the Sadrist movement.
When one of those “statements” kills an American and another crashes into the office of the 3rd ranking political figure in Iraq while the entire 2 million residents of Sadr City are being terrorized by thousands of Mehdi Army militiamen who have ordered shops and schools closed, you have to think that the resistance goes a little beyond “marginal extremist elements.”
It seems to me that the Iraqi government is already starting to weigh the domestic unrest caused by this move against any gains that might be made in Basra. If so, expect a cease fire by the end of the weekend and a humiliating pullback by Iraqi troops leaving the field to the Mehdi Army.