The past week, forces of the Iraqi Army moved into Basra in force. Directed there personally by prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite Muslim, the forces were sent to break the back of the Mahdi Army, a militia led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In what was a clear attempt by the national Iraqi government to regain control over Basra and the all-important oil distribution infrastructure, well-equipped but evidently poorly trained and ill-motivated Iraqi forces battled it out with a rag-tag, but well-equipped and highly motivated militia.
Then, today, after US forces came to the aid of the Iraqi Amry, Al-Sadr withdrew his militia from the Basra streets, on the condition that his militia is left alone and that imprisoned members of the Mahdi Army are released. Pundits in especially the United States, such as newspaper commentators who themselves have never set one foot in the Middle East, were quick to call Al-Sadr’s announcement a victory.
It was anything but; the worst is yet to come.
The past week’s development showed a number of things.
First, Iraqi prime minister Al-Maliki has shown that he’s receptive to criticism. For months, Al-Maliki has been chastised by the Bush Administration and other high profile American politicians that no real progress has been made in terms of political and ethnic reconciliation between the different peoples that inhabit Iraq: the Shiites in the south, the Sunnis in the west, and the Kurds in the north.
And so Al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, decided to show that he has real power, and that he is taking military action to restore control over Basra. Note the geography; another criticism of Al-Maliki is that he still hasn’t regained full control over Iraq’s national oil infrastructure. Basra, which has Iraq’s only deep water harbour connected to the Persian Gulf, is the country’s major oil hub. Aside from that, the Bush Administration is desperate to show that the Iraqi Army is ready for business.
Al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, has been able to build his own little empire in Basra and the surrounding region. Virtually unopposed, Al-Sadr was able to bring in weapons from his Shiite friends across the Iranian border. For incomprehensible reasons, both the American and British forces – which patrolled Iraq’s borders – did not, or proved unable to stop the weapon shipments.
Al-Sadr’s militia, known as the Mahdi Army, was able to establish itself in Basra much like the IRA once did in Belfast: as a state within a state. Al-Sadr’s men controlled the local economy, women were forced to wear veils Shia-style, and the region began to slowly resemble an autonomous region. A Shiite region, which is anathema to not only the US, but probably the entire Middle East (minus Iran and Syria), Russia, much of Europe and – heck, the world.
Aside from Iran and possibly Syria, no one wants Iran to control Iraq’s largest oil reserves via their proxy, Muqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Maliki’s adventure turned into disaster. Within 48 hours after the attacks on Al-Sadr’s militias started, the Iraqi Army forces – trained by US and British forces – started to falter. Instead of pushing on, the combat lines in Basra stabilised, and then militia troops even started pushing back some forces.
The Iraqi troops realised that they had entered unfriendly territory. In a spat of cunning propaganda, Al-Sadr had young girls and old men walk up to Iraqi Army soldiers, to give them flowers and Qur’ans. Especially when the cameras of Al-Jazeera, the Iraqi networks, and the Western news wires were running, of course.
It was when some Iraqi Army (IA) forces started retreating in some neighbourhoods that US forces stepped in. US Army command realised that the IA wasn’t up to it and they moved in special forces and air support. They had anticipated the IA’s possible failure; Apache and Black Hawk helicopters were over Basra within hours, and special forces had been kept on hand all along.
(It is therefore astonishing that Republican presidential candidate John McCain said that Al-Maliki acted on his own, without informing US command. Al-Maliki doesn’t even need to inform US command; nothing happens without US command’s knowledge.)
But even with Apaches buzzing over Basra and well-trained special forces mingling with IA troops, Al-Sadr’s forces held their positions, and in fact expanded some of them. It was then that US command realised that pushing on could well mean two things:
1. Another Fallujah, surely causing many dead US soldiers, and
2. Possibly all-out civil war in the south-east of Iraq.
Al-Sadr realised the same thing, but for him, there was a third consideration: why expend his forces (and possibly himself) now, when he could stand to gain everything later?
His Al-Mahdi militia proved so strong that in the end, Al-Maliki had to sent negotiators to Iran, to have Al-Sadr’s masters reign in their puppet in Basra. What went on during those negotiations? The Iranians obviously pulled the right strings, but at what price? What did the negotiators offer in return?
Or did the Iranians simply understand the third consideration as well? It is likely they did.
Al-Sadr and the Iranians learned a wise lesson. Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his national government basically have control over just one too to work with, the Iraqi Army, and even that failed miserably. And so Al-Maliki still needs help from the Americans in order to accomplish anything.
And then the “International Zone” in Baghad, the so-called ‘safe area’ that holds US HQ and most Iraqi government institutions, came under mortar fire, virtually directed out of Basra by Al-Sadr. By doing so, he showed that he can throw half the country into turmoil if he so chooses.
So Al-Maliki was pushed back at Basra and humiliated in Baghdad. And then, when all this was already painfully obvious, Iraqi negotiators had to go to Iran, hat in hand, to plead with the Iranians that they reign in their Man in Basra. By doing so, the Iraqi government virtually said to the entire world that it isn’t the government in Baghdad that runs things in Basra and the surrounding region, but Tehran.
Thus Al-Maliki’s bungled raid in Basra – because that’s what it was – showed to Iraqis and Arabs that Al-Maliki is weak. To those of you who don’t understand the minds of the average Arab or Iraqi, this is of enormous importance.
Al-Maliki thought he was a lion and he challenged the snake. But the snake did something smart: it crawled back into its hole, where the lion cannot reach. And everybody in the region knows that the snake will jump out of its hole at the time of its choosing, to deliver a fatal attack with its poisonous fangs that will surely fell the lion.
Al-Sadr has already proven that he is a patient man. His position is just as strong as it was before Al-Maliki’s disastrous move. Al-Sadr can now wait until the eagle, that protects the lion, has moved out of the area so that he can strike.
At a time of his choosing, with a well-equipped, highly motivated militia.