Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fighting Erupts in Basra

McClatchy's headline on the outbreak of violence in Basra suggests the collapse of the surge: "Battles Wrack Basra, Threatening Success of U.S. Surge."

Here's the lede:

With Iraq's top leaders directing the battle, Iraq's army and national police pressed a major operation Tuesday to wrest control of the southern port city of Basra from the Shiite Mahdi Army militia. Fighting between government forces and the militia quickly spread through Iraq's south and into Baghdad.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his defense and interior ministers took charge of the 15,000 Iraqi army troops and police units, which were deployed for what aides said was to be a three-day operation against militias in the city.

The battle at the oil-rich port began before dawn Tuesday and lasted into the early evening before subsiding slightly as the Mahdi Army, headed by firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr, defended positions in several neighborhoods. In the dead of night, residents reported artillery shelling, mortar rounds and guns being fired outside their homes.

In the al Timimiyah neighborhood, government forces surrounded a Mahdi Army stronghold and the home of the Rwaymi family, who residents said are well-known oil smugglers and supporters of the militia.
There's no mention of a threat to the long-term success of the surge strategy, which is not surprising, given McClathy's style of tabloid reporting.

Here's how
the New York Times describes the turn of events:

Even before the crackdown on militias began on Tuesday, Pentagon statistics on the frequency of militia and insurgent attacks suggested that after major security gains last fall, the conflict had drifted into something of a stalemate. Over all, violence has remained fairly steady over the past several months, but the streets have become tense and much more dangerous again after a period of calm.

It is not clear how responsible the restive Mahdi militia commanders are for stalling progress in the effort to reduce violence. In recent weeks, commanders have protested continuing American and Iraqi raids and detentions of militia members.

If the cease-fire were to unravel, there is little doubt about the mayhem that could be stirred up by Mr. Sadr, who forced the United States military to mount two bloody offensives against his fighters in 2004 as much of the country exploded in violence.
What's explains Mahdi's return to violence? Here's Captain Ed:

The Iraqi Army has moved to establish central-government control of the southern city of Basra after the British pullout ignited a turf war between the Badr Brigades and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The Mahdis have resisted with force despite orders from Sadr to stand down....

Sadr’s organization already has issued a statement asking for a negotiated peace. They know that they cannot defeat the Iraqi Army, even if Sadr decided to fight all out in Basra. The Mahdis have never really represented a military threat to either the US or trained Iraqi forces; their only victories came against green IA units in the first days of their reconstitution, four years ago. The Mahdis are nothing but a gang with military pretensions, and Sadr knows that better than anyone else.

The Sadrists want to blame this clash on the Iraqi central government, but Nouri al-Maliki had little choice. The Mahdis and the Badr Brigades have been fighting a gang war for control of southern Iraq, and the central government had to put an end to it to demonstrate that their writ runs in all of Iraq. Sadr should have gotten a clue when Maliki quarterbacked a political deal between the central government, the Kurds, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council that runs the Badr Brigade last summer. The writing was on the wall, but Sadr apparently didn’t bother to read it.
See also, the Los Angeles Times, "Iraqi Leader Issues Ultimatum as Clashes Continue in Basra."