UFPJ Talking Points #56

Iraqi government fails in challenging al Sadr militia. “Surge” exposed as failure, but new dangers rise.

  • The Iraqi government’s military offensive in Basra was designed to undermine Prime Minister al-Maliki’s major Shi’a political rival, Moktada al Sadr, but the offensive appears to have failed, and instead is strengthening Sadr’s forces and significantly weakening Bush administration strategy in Iraq.
  • The inability of Iraqi government forces to defeat or even halt Sadr’s militia in Basra, Baghdad or elsewhere even with massive U.S. military support, and the resulting escalation of overall violence in Iraq, also proves the failure of the so-called “surge.”
  • This power struggle between Maliki and Sadr is important because it represents Iraq’s linchpin fight between supporters and opponents of the U.S. occupation and the government kept in place by the occupation; it is particularly important in Basra because almost all of Iraq’s oil these days is exported through Basra.
  • The current fighting escalates the danger of a U.S. attack on Iran, because the undeniable failure of the “surge” strategy makes it much harder for the Bush administration to continue claiming “victory” in Iraq.

The Iraqi government’s U.S.-backed offensive that began on March 25 was not designed to go after “criminals” and was not limited to Basra. It was designed to eliminate the military and political power of Shi’a cleric Moqtada al Sadr, Maliki’s most powerful Shi’a rival, ahead of the provincial elections set for October. The U.S. knew about the planned attacks long ago, and has played a major role in the fighting; Britain has played some role as well. Large-scale desertions among government troops, especially in Baghdad, have been reported. Despite a curfew imposed on Baghdad, huge protests against the offensive broke out in the streets of the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. Direct U.S. involvement – including attacks by helicopter gunships (killing 78 “bad guys” on one day in Basra alone, according to the Pentagon), coordinating attacks and calling in air support – was acknowledged on the 28th. But that support has been insufficient, and the U.S.- and UK-trained Iraqi government troops are still losing against Sadr’s forces. With Maliki having to be evacuated under fire from the Basra palace where he was “directing” the offensive, and the Iraqi government forces collapsing before the stronger Sadr forces, it is clear Maliki miscalculated his own capacity. As the BBC reported it, “Maliki blinked first.”

Instead of strengthening the unpopular Maliki government, the offensive provides a very different “defining moment” than that Bush claimed. It showed that Maliki could not take on the Sadr forces either in Basra, or in Baghdad or a host of cities surrounding Baghdad. And Sadr’s decision on Sunday to call on his forces to stand down, thus reinstituting the ceasefire that he ordered last year but which had collapsed in the face of the Maliki-U.S. offensive, demonstrated once again that the recent decline in violence rested very much in Sadr’s hands. It wasn’t primarily the “surge” that brought about the dramatic decrease in violence from late spring of 2007 till about last November, but rather Sadr’s ceasefire – a choice that could, as recent actions show, be reversed at any time. Sadr’s very public demonstration of his power to unleash or rein in his military forces may well provide a new kind of “defining moment” indeed.

The surge was never the primary reason for the decline in violence. The combination of factors included Sadr’s ceasefire, the creation and paying off of the U.S.-backed and largely Sunni “awakening councils” (who are now accepting money not to attack occupation troops, but who could, like Sadr’s forces, reverse that decision at any point they choose), and finally the horrifying “success” of the ethnic cleansing that was the goal of so much of the violence. Especially in mixed areas such as most of Baghdad, the escalating sectarian violence of 2005-2006 into 2007 largely aimed to force people out of their heterogeneous neighborhoods and into separate Sunni or Shi’a communities. That has largely been accomplished, with much of Baghdad’s population (those who haven’t fled altogether…) now having been forcibly herded into walled-off enclaves kept separate by armed sectarian militias. So the raison d’être of the brutal violence that created that new sectarian reality has ended.

The recent offensive by Maliki’s Shi’a-dominated government troops against their Shi’a rivals was not just one more example of jockeying for power or influence within the Shi’a community. Political fighting has been going on within and among Shi’a communities including both sectarian organizations and Shi’a components of secular or national forces, since the U.S. invasion. This offensive was a specific effort to use the power of the U.S.-trained, U.S.-armed Iraqi army to destroy Moqtada al Sadr’s militia, and thus undermine his political power, once and for all. That effort has failed.

There is particular significance, beyond demonstrating the weakness and unpopularity of the Maliki government even among fellow Shi’a, of the failure of this offensive. One is that a majority of Iraq’s exported oil today is sent from Basra into the Persian Gulf and out into the world. With Maliki’s influence collapsing and Sadr consolidating his hold on Basra, control of oil and the revenue it brings will be much more difficult for the weakened Maliki government. Second, Sadr represents one of the most powerful voices in Iraq against the occupation. It is that political choice – between support for and opposition to the U.S. occupation – that is at stake in this fight. A clear victory by Sadr’s forces – even if the offensive ends with the reinstatement of the cease-fire at Sadr’s own choosing – will strengthen the national mobilization against the U.S. occupation and the Maliki government that it props up.

The current offensive also holds significant dangers in the region. The Bush administration moved early in the offensive to declare it a “defining moment.” General Petraeus is scheduled to come to Washington on April 8 –9, to brief Bush and to reassure congress and the people that “the surge” is working. But in the face of an incontrovertible failure of Maliki’s surge-backed army, that will not be easy. If they had waited, they might have chosen to respond to Maliki’s failure by attempting to diminish the significance of the offensive overall. But having already staked out a position on its importance, the consequences of the offensive’s failure for Bush’s position could be dire. U.S. desperation is evident in the words of Lt. Col. Steve Stover, military spokesman in Baghdad. Describing the 78 unidentified Iraqi “bad guys” the U.S. admitted killing in Basra, where they probably lived, the occupation forces’ mouthpiece said, “They are violating the rule of law. They are firing rockets indiscriminately. They are criminals and terrorists, and they deserve to die.”

There is a rising danger that ideologues in the White House, driven by unilateralism and militarism as points of principle and led by Dick Cheney, could use this moment to escalate or even implement military threats towards Iran – hoping to thereby distract Americans from their failing Iraq policy. Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East, ostensibly talking to Israeli and Palestinian leaders about the so-called “peace process.” She may have another agenda as well; Cheney’s regional “peace process” visit last week primarily focused on pressing Arab governments to back U.S. threats against Iran. (In fact the day after Cheney left Riyadh, the Saudi and Arab Gulf press announced that the Saudi government’s powerful Shura council would “secretly discuss national plans to deal with any sudden nuclear and radioactive hazards that may affect the kingdom following experts’ warnings of possible attacks on Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactors.” Even if that report is factually false, its deliberate announcement in the government-controlled press indicates unease among Bush’s top Arab allies.) We should be watching for any deliberate provocation aimed at Iran, or even a completely false Tonkin Gulf-style “incident” which might be designed as a pretext to military strikes against Iran.

And just so we don’t forget…
In the four months since the Annapolis “peace” talks (November 28, 2007 – March 27, 2008)

  • Israeli military attacks in the occupied territories: 1,466; in the West Bank: 683; in the Gaza Strip: 783
  • Palestinians killed: 337 – 39 of them children; in the West Bank: 36; in the Gaza Strip: 301
  • Palestinians injured: 1,158 – 76 of them children; in the West Bank: 372; in the Gaza Strip: 786
  • Palestinians arrested: 2,117 – 24 of them children; in the West Bank: 1,794; in the Gaza Strip: 323

(Figures released by Palestinian National Initiative, Almubadara, March 28, 2008)

Contact the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation: www.endtheoccupation.org

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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