IT was bound to happen and may well be happening right now: a war between the Islamic Republic in Iran and the new Iraq.
Much of the media have portrayed the latest battles for Basra, and
attempts by armed groups to undermine the recently improved security in
Baghdad, as a power struggle among rival Shiite factions.
this analysis, three Shiite factions - the Fadila (Virtue), the Dawa
(The Call) and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq - that support Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition government are trying to disarm
the remnants of the Mahdi Army of the elusive mullah Muqtada Sadr.
But that explanation has several problems.
To start with, it is the regular Iraqi army - not any Shiite armed
faction - that is doing the fighting in Basra. To underline that point,
Maliki went to Basra to supervise operations personally.
And the kind of fighting witnessed in Basra is different from the usual militia operations.
This is a war of position, with units acting as detachments of a
regular army trying to deny the Iraqi government forces control of
specific territories. The fighters defying the Iraqi army may be Iraqi
irregulars, even nominal members of the Mahdi Army - but those leading
them are acting as textbook regular-army commanders.
some of the officers in charge of the rebel units may be seconded from
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as part of a broader plan to
control the Basra region, and thus the lifeline of the Iraqi economy.
This wouldn't be the first time that Guard officers and NCOs have
fought at the head of native fighters outside Iran. Two years ago,
Guard personnel played a crucial role in the war between the Lebanese
Hezbollah and Israel. And Guard officers and NCOs led some armed Iraqi
groups in operations against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in
The type of weapons used in both Basra and Baghdad also suggests at
least some outside involvement. The rebels in Basra are using a large
number of armored vehicles to move men and materiel around - something
no other Shiite militia, and certainly not the Mahdi Army, had ever
done. They're also using heavy artillery, mobile rocket launchers and a
sophisticated communications system unavailable to militias.
Elements of the Mahdi Army may provide the visible face of the
rebellion, but there is no evidence that the militia (supposing it even
still exists as an organized force) is the sole star of this show.
Sadr, after all, has extended the ceasefire he declared six months ago
- and, in a recent letter, admitted that he had failed to "liberate"
Iraq and create an "Islamic society." Last week, he issued another
statement calling for a political settlement in Basra - a far cry from
the bellicose noises made by these rebels with the help of Iranian
Spending most of his time in Iran, Sadr is
now preparing to claim a theological position within the Shiite
hierarchy - an ambition that cannot be realized through gunfights in
the streets of Basra and Baghdad.
One other notable fact:
Whoever is running the show on the rebel side has been able to devise a
battle plan that included simultaneous attacks along a north-south axis
that includes Baghdad, al-Amarah and Basra. No other Iraqi militia
group, Shiite or Sunni, has had the resources to stage such a campaign
The rebels are trying to retain areas that connect
Basra, a vast urban sprawl, to the Shatt al-Arab, an estuary that forms
part of the border between Iran and Iraq. If the Iraqi government is
kept out of these areas, Iran would control both banks of the
strategically vital waterway. Iran has already occupied several islands
in the waterway facing Basra, using them as advance observation posts.
Finally, the design of this operation recalls an Iranian plan, drafted
in 1983-84, to seize control of Basra and parts of the Shiite-majority
areas of southern Iraq.
According to Ibrahim Yazdi, once a top adviser to the late
Ayatollah Khomeini, the "Basra Plan" was devised as a compromise. The
ayatollah wanted the war with Iraq to continue until the fall of
Baghdad, after which he hoped his armies would march on Jerusalem. His
advisers, including Yazdi, knew that Iran could not win such a war and
tried to placate him by offering him Basra.
Visitors to Basra
since Saddam's fall have often been struck by the massive "Iranian"
presence there. Much of this consists of large numbers of Iraqi
Shiites, known as mua'aweddin (returnees), who have come home
after years of exile in Iran. There are also those who hold both
Iranian and Iraqi nationality. Known as muzdawajun (double nationals), they are often accused of being loyal to Shiism rather than any secular concept as a nation state.
Why has Basra, a relatively calm place for the last five years, heated up now?
One reason may be the British decision last year to withdraw from the
city. This left a vacuum that the new Iraqi army and police were unable
to fill immediately. Iran may have seized the opportunity to try to
grab as much influence and presence as it could - both via Shiite
militias (including the Mahdi Army) that it has financed for years and
by sending large numbers of operatives across the border.
prospect of losing control of Basra may have prompted the Maliki
government to act. Whoever controls Basra could influence the outcome
of next year's crucial local-government elections. Basra and the Shiite
south represent the backbone of support for the Maliki coalition;
without them, the coalition couldn't retain control of the central
government in Baghdad.
At a time when US commanders in Iraq,
including Gen. David Petraeus, openly accuse Iran of having joined the
Iraqi imbroglio, the fate of Basra appears important for another
If there were a war between the United States and the
Islamic Republic, one likely early US objective would be seizure of
Iranian oilfields. To do that, America and its allies would need
advance bases in southern Iraq - the key to which is Basra. Iran, on
the other hand, could extend the defensive perimeter of its oilfields
by annexing Basra.
Both sides may simply be interested in
testing the waters at this stage. But the war over who will shape the
future of Iraq, indeed of the Middle East as a whole, is in its early