Monday, March 31, 2008

Iraq update

When Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi Army to clean out what he
called criminal elements in Al-Basrah a week ago, he offered no
Saying that the central government was duty-bound to bring
security to Iraq's main port and oil-export center, he said that "we will
continue until the end. No retreat, no talks, no negotiations." He also went to
Al-Basrah, vowing not to leave again until the security operation was
But after six days of fighting that spread rapidly from Al-Basrah
to other cities in the south of Iraq and to Baghdad, al-Maliki welcomed a
cease-fire offer from radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on March 30. The
street fighting now appears over.
Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the
International Crisis Group, says the fighting was a test of strength between
Iraq's two major Shi'ite political factions. Its inconclusive end underlines
anew the difficulties Washington will have with leaving Iraq, despite progress
against Al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents and hopes this progress might be sustained
by the Shi'ite-dominated central government.
"I think it was a dual campaign,
on the one hand, by the Iraqi government, which wanted to impose its sovereignty
over Al-Basrah, which has been lawless, and secondly, it's a campaign based on
the desire by one of the ruling parties, which has its own militia, [the Islamic
Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim] with its Badr Corps, to
push back the Sadr movement and its militia, the Mahdi Army, especially since
provincial council elections have been planned for the fall in which the Sadr
movement is likely to do much better than the Supreme Council."
says the political nature of the power struggle quickly became apparent as the
fighting began. The national army units involved were units from southern Iraq,
where the recruiting has been heavily from the Supreme Council's Badr
He says that the other major component of the Iraqi Army,
recruits from the Kurdish militias in northern Iraq, "would not go down to the
south to fight this kind of fight."
As the clashes intensified, the 28,000
soldiers involved in the operation proved unable to quickly drive al-Sadr's Imam
Al-Mahdi Army from the streets, despite U.S. air support. In the interim,
Sadrists in other towns in the south, as well as in Baghdad's sprawling Al-Sadr
City slum, tactically spread the fighting there. That escalated the stakes for
al-Maliki's government to unacceptable levels as it raised fears of a general
insurrection by al-Sadr's forces.
Hiltermann says the sudden end to the
showdown on March 30 seems to have come with Iran brokering a cease-fire between
the two sides. Tehran has close ties with both the Supreme Council and al-Sadr's
movement and wants to see a strong Shi'ite-dominated government survive against
Sunni and Kurdish rivals following any U.S. drawdown in Iraq.
Standoff Continues
That leaves the situation in Al-Basrah very much where it
was before the week of fighting, which claimed some 359 lives across
Hiltermann says Al-Basrah remains divided among three groups. One, the
Shi'ite Al-Fadilah (Virtue) Party, is associated with provincial Governor
Muhammad Wa'ili. It stayed out of the fray while the troops and the Sadrists
Hiltermann says that Al-Fadilah "has done very well for itself, and
they have the governor position and they control the oil company there, so they
have a very good share of the oil trade and the oil smuggling that is going on
there. The other groups are trying to get a cut of that and, of course, have
shared power to some extent, with Supreme Council dominating security
institutions and the Sadrists being involved in the police and being very strong
on the street."
So, what happens next? One player to watch is al-Maliki. The
prime minister, who is from a Shi'ite religious party, Al-Da'wah, t has no
strong militia, has had to ally himself at various times with al-Sadr or the
Supreme Council. Al-Sadr's party helped him win his post as prime minister, but
since then the Sadrists have distanced themselves from him as he has
worked closely with the United States, which al-Sadr wants out of
Al-Maliki has worked hard to portray himself as a national figure able
to restore security and suppress corruption in Iraq. His strong identification
with the Supreme Council in leading a fight against al-Sadr, however, now may
damage that image, handicapping him as a leader.
The other thing to watch
will be the governorate-council elections later this year. In the aftermath of
last week's fighting, the question is whether the rival Shi'ite parties will now
accept the ballot box as the way to balance power between them or will continue
to try force. What they decide will go a long way toward defining the stability
of Iraq.
How often do you see "Iraq" and "Fighting Over" in the same headline? This, my friends, is why the US is still down there. We're trying to prevent violence like this and failing miserably.

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