Monday, March 31, 2008

Cordesman Shakes the Kaleidoscope of Iraq

Anthony Cordesman has a powerful essay up today, at the New York Times, on Iraq's factional conflict. The Basra offensive apparently's less a democratic consolidation than a true power grab by the central government:

EVEN if American and Iraqi forces are able to eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq, there are still three worrisome possibilities of new forms of fighting that could divide Iraq and deny the United States any form of “victory....”

As I traveled through southern Iraq, many people I spoke to were worried about how the October elections would play out. The first problem is that there are no real indigenous political parties operating with local leaders. The second is the framework, which is still undecided. If the election follows the model of the 2005 vote, Iraqis will vote for long lists of candidates from the main parties (confronting many unfamiliar names) and there will be no allowance for the direct election of members of the Parliament who would represent a given area or district. Optimists hope that local leaders and parties will emerge before the election; realists foresee an uncertain mess.

There were also differences of opinion over Mr. Sadr’s cease-fire. Was he simply waiting out the American-Iraqi effort to defeat Al Qaeda before allowing his army to become active again? Or was he repositioning himself for a more normal political life? Most likely, he is doing both. He may be as confused by the uncertain nature of Iraqi politics as everyone else, and he may be dealing with a movement so fractured and diverse that effective control is nearly impossible.

In any event, it is clear that Basra has become a special case. Since the American-led invasion, it had been under the protection of the British, who opted for a strategy of not-so-benign neglect. Thus the power struggle in the city — Iraq’s main port — differs sharply from that in the other Shiite areas. Basra was essentially divided up among Shiite party mafias, each of which had its own form of extortion and corruption. They sometimes fight and feud, and there are reasons to call them criminal gangs, but they have established crude modus vivendi.

Basra also feels the influence of Iran far more than the other Shiite governorates. Iran’s religious paramilitary force, Al Quds, has been an equal-opportunity supplier of weapons and money to all the Shiite militias, effectively ensuring that it will support the winner, regardless of who the winner turns out to be.

There are good reasons for the central government to reassert control of Basra. It is not peaceful. It is the key to Iraq’s oil exports. Gang rule is no substitute for legitimate government. But given the timing and tactics, it is far from clear that this offensive is meant to serve the nation’s interest as opposed to those of the Islamic Supreme Council and Dawa.

How will it affect America? If the fighting sets off a broad, lasting, violent power struggle between Shiite factions, most of the security gains of the last year could be lost and our military role broadened. There is also no guarantee that a victory by Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council will serve the cause of political accommodation or lead to fair elections and the creation of legitimate local and provincial governments. Such an outcome, in fact, might favor a Dawa and Islamic Supreme Council “Iraqracy,” not democracy.
Allahpundit argues that Cordesman's "never shied from telling either side what it doesn’t want to hear" about the war's progress, noting that he's again "shaken the kaleidoscope on the conflict:

Ace calls me the Eeyore of the right-wing blogosphere, so let me stay true to form by saying that if the goal of the assault on Basra was to cripple Sadr’s popular support and avoid a rout at the polls by his fans, it’s not clear to me that they’ve succeeded. The heavy losses inflicted on the JAM are lovely but there’s no way to know what the breakdown is there between regular forces and Iranian-backed “rogue” forces, and certainly no way to know how that pounding’s going to shake out in terms of voting for the provincial elections. Maybe it makes the Sadrists less intimidating, or maybe it makes them more sympathetic. Likewise, I’m not sure why the offer of truce from Sadr is some unambiguous capitulation and victory for Maliki when we haven’t even seen yet what it means in practice. Israel and Hezbollah reached a truce in 2006; it hasn’t done much to stabilize Lebanon or disarm Nasrallah. If the JAM comes out with its hands up, wonderful. If, instead, Maliki reneges on his promise to run them off the field by declaring “mission accomplished” and pulling out while leaving them with their weapons intact, not so wonderful. We’ll see; the left jumped the gun in pronouncing the surge a failure and I’m disinclined to repeat their mistake in pronouncing this a success. The fact that Iraqi officials sought Sadr out in Iran isn’t the best sign:

The substance of the nine-point statement, released by Mr. Sadr on Sunday afternoon, was hammered out in elaborate negotiations over the past few days with senior Iraqi officials, some of whom traveled to Iran to meet with Mr. Sadr, according to several officials involved in the negotiations…

Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the campaign and that he is now in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival and now his opponent in battle, for a solution to the crisis.

Hope for the best but read the Cordesman piece. A Basra free of the Mahdi Army is really only a Basra owned by militias from SCIRI, Fadhila, and Dawa. A good start, but only if it really is a start. Exit quotation: “The Sadrists will likely view their survival as victory.”

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