Sunday, March 30, 2008


Anthony H. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in today’s New York Times on this week’s fighting in Basra:

Fighting is now occurring in southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad between the Mahdi Army, which is under the control of the populist cleric Moktada al-Sadr, and a coalition of forces led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a powerful party led by a Maliki ally, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. This latter coalition has de facto control of much of the Iraqi security forces, and Mr. Hakim’s group has its own militia, called the Badr Organization.

Much of the reporting on this fighting in Basra and Baghdad — which was initiated by the Iraqi government — assumes that Mr. Sadr and his militia are the bad guys who are out to spoil the peace, and that the government forces are the legitimate side trying to bring order. This is a dangerous oversimplification, and one that the United States needs to be far more careful about endorsing.

There is no question that many elements of the Mahdi Army have been guilty of sectarian cleansing, that the Sadr movement is hostile to the United States, that some of its extremists have continued acts of violence in spite of the cease-fire Mr. Sadr declared last summer, and that some of these rogue elements have ties to Iran. No one should romanticize the Sadr movement, understate the risks it presents or ignore the violent radicals in the Mahdi Army.

But it is equally important not to romanticize Mr. Maliki, the Dawa Party or the Islamic Supreme Council. The current fighting, which the government portrays as a crackdown on criminality, is better seen as a power grab, an effort by Mr. Maliki and the most powerful Shiite political parties to establish their authority over Basra and the parts of Baghdad that have eluded their grasp.

Moreover, Mr. Maliki’s gamble has already dragged American forces part-way into the fight, including airstrikes in Basra. Striking at violent, rogue elements in the Mahdi Army is one thing, but engaging the entire Sadr movement is quite another. The official cease-fire that has kept the mainstream Mahdi Army from engaging government and United States forces may well be rescinded if the government’s assault continues.

This looming power struggle was all too clear when I was in Iraq last month. The Supreme Council was the power behind the Shiite governorates in the south and was steadily expanding its influence over the Iraqi police. It was clearly positioning itself to counter Mr. Sadr’s popular support and preparing for the provincial elections scheduled for Oct. 1.

American military and civilian officials were candid in telling me that the governors and other local officials installed by the central government in Basra and elsewhere in southern Iraq had no popular base. If open local and provincial elections were held, they said, Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council were likely to be routed because they were seen as having failed to bring development and government services.


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.

You can read the entire piece here.

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