A GAMBLE that proved too costly.
That's how analysts in Tehran describe events last month in Basra. Iran's state-run media have de facto confirmed
that this was no spontaneous "uprising." Rather, Iran's Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tried to seize control of Iraq's
second-largest city using local Shiite militias as a Trojan horse.
Tehran's decision to make the gamble was based on three assumptions:
* Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wouldn't have the courage to
defend Basra at the risk of burning his bridges with the Islamic
Republic in Iran.
* The international force would be in no
position to intervene in the Basra battle. The British, who controlled
Basra until last December, had no desire to return, especially if this
meant getting involved in fighting. The Americans, meanwhile, never had
enough troops to finish off al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, let alone fight Iran and
its local militias on a new front.
* The Shiite clerical
leadership in Najaf would oppose intervention by the new Iraqi security
forces in a battle that could lead to heavy Shiite casualties.
The Iranian plan - developed by Revolutionary Guard's Quds (Jerusalem)
unit, which is in charge of "exporting the Islamic Revolution" - aimed
at a quick victory. To achieve that, Tehran spent vast sums persuading
local Iraqi security personnel to switch sides or to remain neutral.
The hoped-for victory was to be achieved as part of a massive Shiite
uprising spreading from Baghdad to the south via heartland cities such
as Karbala, Kut and al-Amarah. A barrage of rockets and missiles
against the "Green Zone" in Baghdad and armed attacks on a dozen police
stations and Iraqi army barracks in the Shiite heartland were designed
to keep the Maliki government under pressure.
To seize control of Basra, Quds commanders used units known as
Special Groups. These consist of individuals recruited from among the
estimated 1.8 million Iraqi refugees who spent more than two decades in
Iran during Saddam Hussein's reign. They returned to Iraq shortly after
Saddam's fall and started to act as liaisons between Quds and local
In last month's operation, Quds commanders
used the name and insignia of the Mahdi Army, a militia originally
created by the maverick cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, as a cover for the
Initially, Quds commanders appeared to have
won their bet. Their Special Groups and Mahdi Army allies easily seized
control of key areas of Basra when more than 500 Iraqi security
personnel abandoned their positions and disappeared into the woodwork.
Soon, however, the tide turned. Maliki proved that he had the courage
to lead the new Iraqi Security Force (ISF) into battle, even if that
meant confronting Iran. The ISF showed that it had the capacity and the
will to fight.
Only a year ago, the ISF had been unable to
provide three brigades (some 9,000 men) to help the US-led "surge"
restore security in Baghdad. This time, the ISF had no difficulty
deploying 15 brigades (30,000 men) for the battle of Basra.
Led by Gen. Mohan al-Freiji, the Iraqi force sent to Basra was the
largest that the ISF had put together since its creation five years
ago. This was the first time that the ISF was in charge of a major
operation from start to finish and was fighting a large, well-armed
adversary without US advisers.
During the Basra battles, the
ISF did call on British and US forces to provide some firepower,
especially via air strikes against enemy positions. But, in another
first, the ISF used its own aircraft to transport troops and material
and relied on its own communication system.
The expected call from the Najaf ayatollahs to stop "Shiite
fratricide" failed to materialize. Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad
Sistani, the top cleric in Iraq, gave his blessings to the
Maliki-launched operation. More broadly, the Shiite uprisings in
Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf and other cities that Quds commanders had
counted upon didn't happen. The "Green Zone" wasn't evacuated in panic
under a barrage of rockets and missiles.
After more than a
week of fighting, the Iraqis forced the Quds commanders to call for a
cease-fire through Sadr. The Iraqi commander agreed - provided that the
Quds force directly guaranteed it. To highlight Iran's role in the
episode, he insisted that the Quds force dispatch a senior commander to
finalize the accord.
The Iran-backed side lost more than 600 men, with more than 1,000 injured. The ISF lost 88 dead and 122 wounded.
Some analysts suggest this was the first war between new Iraq and the Islamic Republic. If so, the Iraqis won.
To be sure, the Iranian-backed side lost partly because Iran couldn't
use its full might, especially its air force. (That almost certainly
would've led to war between Iran and the US-led coalition in Iraq.)
The battle for Basra showed that Iraq has a new army that's willing and
able to fight. If the 15 brigades that fought are a sample, the new
Iraq may have an effective army of more than 300,000 before year's end.
But the battle also showed that the ISF still lacks the weapons
systems, including attack aircraft and longer-range missiles, needed to
transform tactical victories into strategic ones. The Iranian-sponsored
Special Groups and their Mahdi Army allies simply disappeared from the
scene, taking their weapons with them, waiting for another fight.
Tehran tried to test the waters in Basra and, as an opportunist power,
would've annexed southern Iraq under a quisling administration had that
been attainable at a low cost. Once it became clear that the cost might
be higher than the Quds force expected, Tehran opted to back down.
Yet this was just the first round. The struggle for Iraq isn't over.