Sunday, March 30, 2008

Basra Offensive Revives Iraq Election Debate

McCain in Iraq

As I noted this morning in, "Basra Offensive Issues Major Losses to Mahdi Army," the new fighting in Iraq's giving new hope to the antiwar left that they can paint the war as a disaster, bolstering their case for an unconditional retreat in the fall campaign.

It turns out
the New York Times has a major story on the political angle, with a dicussion of the competing partisan assessments of the implications of this week's fighting:

The heavy fighting that broke out last week as Iraqi security forces tried to oust Shiite militias from Basra is reverberating on the presidential campaign trail and posing new challenges and opportunities to the candidates, particularly Senator John McCain.

The fierce fighting — and the threat that it could undo a long-term truce that has greatly helped to reduce the level of violence in Iraq — thrust the war back into the headlines and the public consciousness just as it had been receding behind a tide of economic concerns. And it raised anew a host of politically charged questions about whether the current strategy is succeeding, how capable the Iraqis are of defending themselves and what the potential impact would be of any American troop withdrawals.

Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has made the Iraq war a centerpiece of his campaign; he rode to success in the primary season partly on his early advocacy of the troop buildup. The battle in Basra broke out as he returned from a trip to Iraq this month, proclaiming that violence there was down and that the troop escalation was working.

Mr. McCain, of Arizona, said he was encouraged that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government had sent its troops to reclaim Basra from the Shiite militias. “I think it’s a sign of the strength of his government,” Mr. McCain said Friday at a stop in Las Vegas. “I think it’s going to be a tough fight. We know that these militias are well entrenched there. I hope they will succeed and succeed quickly.”

The Democrats, who are calling for phased troop withdrawals, are beginning to point to the fighting in Basra as evidence that the American troop buildup has failed to provide stability and political reconciliation — particularly if the fighting leads one militia, the Mahdi Army, to pull out of its cease-fire; that could lead to a new spate of sectarian violence across the country. Some are saying the fighting strengthens their case for troop withdrawals.

But the McCain campaign is hoping to turn that argument on its head, asserting that the battle in Basra shows just how dangerous the situation on the ground in Iraq is. It says this bolsters Mr. McCain’s argument that a premature withdrawal of American troops would lead to more widespread violence, instability and perhaps even genocide.

“I think that what this demonstrates is that there are very powerful forces that still remain that do not want to see the success of the central government and that would relish the prospect of the American withdrawal so that they could try to fight or shoot their way into power,” said Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign’s senior foreign policy adviser. “Would you rather have the Maliki government in control, or the Iranian-backed special groups in control, or Al Qaeda in control?”

But at a news conference on Saturday in Johnstown, Pa., Senator Barack Obama of Illinois suggested the news from Basra highlighted his contention that American military involvement could not solve the deep-seated problems facing Iraq.

A point I've made in discussing this week's conflict is that the renewed fighting reveals only that our job in Iraq is not complete, and that the Basra offensive indicates intensifying efforts by the al Maliki regime to consolidate central government control over holdout regions of partial sub-national autonomy.

The tide has shifted against the al Mahdi brigades, a turn of events on the ground with huge implications, as Power Line suggests:

This episode might prove to be, as President Bush suggested, a defining moment in Iraq's post-war history. The main knock on Maliki's government has been that it is a Shia instrument that has sometimes been infiltrated by radical Shia elements. Sunnis have often been suspicious of the government on this ground. The fact that Iraqi soldiers took the lead in rooting out Sadr's militia may demonstrate to Iraqis that Maliki's government represents all Iraqis, not just the Shia.
Photo Credit: New York Times