Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cleaning Up Dodge: Big Picture Analysis in Basra Fighting

Basra Fighting

The eruption of intra-Shiite fighting in Iraq's just the recipe for antiwar mavens who've been straining since early last year to find purchase for their anti-Bush screeds.

But as I pointed out in my post yesterday, "
Contrast in Iraq: How Do We Demonstrate Progress?," the larger picture amid the violence is the growing independence and institutional capacity of the Iraqi state. Max Boot adds a bit more to that perspective:

I have hesitated to comment on the fighting raging in Basra, which has spilled over into other cities including Baghdad, because the shape of events is so difficult to make out from afar-or for that matter even from up close. The best analysis I have seen is this article in the Financial Times which notes that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is taking a major gamble by challenging the power of the Shiite militias–more like criminal gangs-which have seized control of Basra, Iraq’s second or third largest city and home to its only major port.

While most news coverage has focused on the renewed fighting as signs of impending doom–or at the very least evidence that the surge isn’t working so well–the FT correctly detects a silver lining: “If the prime minister succeeds, the pay-off would deliver a big boost to the credibility of a shaky government, proving that the growing national army is capable of taking on powerful militia.”

This gamble is long overdue. The British basically abdicated their counterinsurgency role in the south and allowed thugs to take over Basra. The police force is particularly corrupt. Maliki is now sending the Iraqi Security Forces to do what the Brits wouldn’t: clean up Dodge.

The risk of course is that Moqtada al Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi (JAM)–one of Iraq’s largest and most threatening militias–will go to the mattresses in retaliation. There is some evidence of this happening with ultra-violent “Special Groups”, which have been loosely associated with JAM, ramping up rocket attacks on the Green Zone. There have also been clashes reported in Sadr City, Hilla, Karbala, and other Shiite areas.

But the Sadrist leadership has stuck by its promise to maintain a ceasefire, at least when it comes to operations against coalition forces. Even though some more mainstream JAM elements, not just the Special Groups, seem to be drawn into fighting against the Iraqi security forces and to a lesser extent coalition forces, that is not necessarily a bad thing. If we’re going to have a showdown, better to have it now then in the fall when there will be substantially fewer American troops on the ground.

The power of militias has been one of the most corrosive features of post-2003 Iraq. No prime minister, including Maliki, has shown much willingness or ability to take on the gunmen, because successive Iraqi governments have depended for their existence on political parties closely aligned with the militias, notably the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadr trend. If Maliki is now getting serious about asserting the supremacy of the Iraqi state over the militias, that is a development to be cheered. I only hope he does not lose his nerve in this hour of crisis: if well-led, the Iraqi Security Forces have the power to defeat any militia on the battlefield.

Cleaning up Dodge. I love that!

See also the Financial Times, "Maliki Risks Open Sadrist Insurrection."

Photo Credit: New York Times