ALMOST FROM THE MOMENT IT began on March 25, the inside-the-Beltway
Conventional Wisdom about the Iraqi Army's offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr's
"Jaysh al Mahdi" militia and other, more criminal elements in the
city of Basra--the second-largest city in Iraq and whose port is Iraq's lifeline
to the international economy--was that it was a half-baked enterprise and soon
a fully-baked disaster. But the latest news from Iraq strongly suggests that is,
once again, the narrative of defeat that is half-baked. Over the weekend, the
Iraqi Army asserted control over the Basra
neighborhoods that had been Sadrist "strongholds" (though, as in the
past, the pattern of JAM behavior is flight-not-fight when its losses begin to
mount) and continued to apply strong pressure on Sadr
City, the main JAM redoubt in Baghdad.
But, before the reality check, let's indulge in a retrospective of the
failure fantasies of recent weeks. "I hope we don't hear any glorification
of what happened in Basra,"
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi warned Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan
Crocker before they delivered their Iraq update testimony to Congress
on April 9. Pelosi was parroting the left's rush to judgment that the Iraqi
operation was a conclusive failure and that Muqtada al Sadr and Iran were the
big winners. Basra was an unpleasant
"lesson" for the Maliki government, wrote Robert Dreyfuss on March 31
in the Nation; the prime minister personally "lost face" and
the initial cease-fire "worked out in Qom, Iran and mediated by Tehran," was "doubly
embarrassing." But it was worse for the United States and an "utter
humiliation" for President Bush.
The allegedly Mainstream Media had likewise already picked up on the left's
talking points: USA Today editorialized on April 1 that the Basra
offensive "weakened Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki . . . strengthened the
hand of Muqtada al-Sadr" and "in another piece of bad news, all this
helped Iran." Trudy Rubin's April 6 "Worldview" column in the Philadelphia
Inquirer trumpeted that the "Basra
fiasco showed Iran's power
Rubin followed Dreyfuss's line that it was the commander of the Iranian Quds
force who "negotiated" the ceasefire--because, as Iranian foreign
minister Manucher Mottaki told her as the Davos World Economic Forum (where
Important People gather to certify what will and will not be Conventional
Wisdom), "The United States and Iran have common interests in avoiding
total chaos in Iraq." But the strongest celebration of Sadr's
"victory" fell to Time magazine's Charles Crain; the firebrand
cleric "finds himself in a perfect position," he wrote April 1.
"[J]ust when it appeared he might be marginalized again, the Iraqi
government has burnished Sadr's image as a leader who defies the United States and an Iraqi government that
refuses to accept U.S.
The British press has also been hard at work trumpeting the alleged defeat,
and their interest is sparked all the more because of the proximity of British
forces in the south of Iraq--indeed,
the British army long ago withdrew from the streets of Basra. The Guardian's Jonathan Steele
concluded on April 4 that the "assault on Basra was particularly foolish." Muqtada
al Sadr "comes out of the crisis strengthened. His militiamen gave no
ground." According to Steele, Sadr enjoys "widespread popular
support"--not just among a portion of the Shiite poor--"because of
his nationalist credentials." One wonders what the Anbari shieks or
Kurdish faction leaders would agree. Sean Rayment, the London Daily
Telegraph defense correspondent, wrote on April 21--quoting a host of
British officers--that the battle to retake Basra was a "complete disaster. . . .
The net effect of all this is that the British Army will be forced to remain
here"--does he mean at their base outside Basra?--"for many months longer."
And now for something completely different; the reality
check in the form of a summary of recent news from Basra
* On April 20, "Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia in Basra on Saturday," according to James
Glanz and Alissa Rubin's account in the New York Times. Notably, this
"Iraqi government's monthlong military operation against the [Jaysh al
Mahdi] fighters" was given a thumb's-up by Iran's
ambassador to Iraq.
Taking a term from Prime Minister Maliki, Hassan Kazemi Qumi described the
Sadrist militias in Basra
* On April 19, Reuters reported that the Hayaniya district in Basra was taken by Iraqi troops, "backed by a thunderous
bombardment by U.S.
warplanes and British artillery." An Iraqi interiror ministry spokesman
told the news service, "Out troops deployed in all the parts of the
district and controlled it without much resistance. Now we are working on
house-to-house checking. We have made many arrests."
* Fighting continued in the Sadr city section of Baghdad,
and Iraqi forces have been pursuing elements of the Mahdi militia and
Iranian-backed "special groups," some dozens of whom have been
captured and killed. Although Sadr, still thought to be in Iran,
threatened a "third uprising," issuing a "last direct warning
and speech to the Iraqi government to refrain and take the path of peace and
abandon violence against its people. If the government does not refrain and
leash the militias that have penetrated it, we will announce an open war until
liberation." Sounding less like a firebrand speaking from a perfect
position, the cleric lamented, "This government has forgotten that we are
their brothers and were part of them." Et tu, Nuri?
* The Iranian ambassador does not appreciate the assaults on Sadr City;
unlike the Basra offensive--which targeted some groups less responsive to
Iranian influence--the Baghdad campaign "would aggravate the situation and
make things worse" from the Iranian perspective.
While it's very difficult to tell who's up and who's down in Baghdad on a day-to-day
basis, what seems increasingly clear is that the Shia community, like the Sunni
community before it, is reaching a point where it is fracturing and beginning
to reject those who have staked themselves--and whose future depends--on
stoking sectarian extremism.
There's even a struggle in the Sadrist movement. On April 12, Riyadh Noori,
a senior aide and in-law of Sadr and a suspect in the 2003 killing of Abdel
Majid Khoei, a respected cleric and rival of Sadr's, was gunned down in Najaf.
It remains unclear who killed Noori, but Sheik Fatih Khashic Ghitaa, director
of the Al Thaqalayn Center for Strategic Studies, probably got it right when he
told the Los Angeles Times, "It's going to be a fight among the
Sadrist people themselves because three or four parts of the Mahdi Army are
This moment of flux is also a moment of tremendous opportunity for the
United States and its Iraqi allies, and not least of all Prime Minister Maliki,
once almost universally reviled (and still reviled in the western press) as a
weakling unlikely to serve out his term. And while the halting successes in Basra and Baghdad
reveal some of the underlying problems of the Iraqi Army and other security
forces, Maliki has persevered and his willingness to take a risk may be
rewarded--it is Maliki, not Sadr or his Iranian backers, who has emerged
stronger in the past weeks.
Over the next six months it's reasonable to
hope--though we've all heard this before--that, at last, a new Iraq will emerge: the offensive against al Qaeda
remnants continues in the north of Iraq, the Sadrists have lost
momentum and cohesion, and upcoming elections improve the prospects for
bringing to power a newly responsive central government. Taken together, these
trends measure a kind of Iraqi surge of the sort that was envisioned by the
American surge of the past year.