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Forced to fight renegades

March 27th, 2008

The Maliki government’s offensive in Basra, directed against (some) Shiite militias seems to have taken most observers by surprise. Possibly as a result, reporting of the event has been unusually revealing about the implicit presumptions that guide the news we get to read. The New York Times, for example, leads with a photo of “Fighters loyal to renegade Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr”, taking up positions in Basra. Later on, the article notes

If the cease-fire were to unravel, there is little doubt about the mayhem that could be stirred up by Mr. Sadr, who forced the United States military to mount two bloody offensives against his fighters in 2004

Like most of the other militia leaders in Iraq (including the leaders of mercenary militias like Blackwater), Sadr is not a particularly attractive character. But in what possible sense can he be described as a “renegade”? He was a consistent opponent of Saddam and became a consistent opponent of the US occupation. This might justify descriptions like “rebel” or “recalcitrant”, but Sadr is one of the few Iraqi figures who hasn’t switched sides, in many cases more than once.

More important though, is the second paragraph. The US was not, in any sense, forced to launch the 2004 offensives. These were miniature wars of choice within the broader war of choice in Iraq. The assumption was that Sadr’s supporters could be crushed by military force, leaving the way open for the US occupation government to reshape Iraq along the lines it wanted. In the end, after much bloodshed, nothing was achieved. Arrest warrants for Sadr, the pretext for the first offensive, quietly disappeared when they became inconvenient, and much the same happened the second time around.

We are now seeing a repeat of the same strategy, adopted by the Maliki government. On past performance, the likely pattern will be one of initial success, followed by a lot of tough talk, and then a bloody stalemate, ending in a patched-up compromise.

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  1. Ian Gould
    March 27th, 2008 at 09:19 | #1

    A similar article from the McClatchly Newspapers wire service starts:

    “BAGHDAD — A cease-fire critical to the improved security situation in Iraq appeared to unravel Monday when a militia loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr began shutting down neighborhoods in west Baghdad and issuing demands of the central government.

    Simultaneously, in the strategic southern port city of Basra, where Sadr’s Mahdi militia is in control, the Iraqi government launched a crackdown in the face of warnings by Sadr’s followers that they’ll fight government forces if any Sadrists are detained. By 1 a.m. Arab satellite news channels reported clashes between the Mahdi Army and police in Basra.”

    So Sadr started it and it’s just coincidence that simultaneously the Al-Maliki government launched an attack (sorry “a crackdown”)in Basra.

  2. Ian Gould
    March 27th, 2008 at 10:19 | #2

    I also like how Sadr’s issuing demands to the government. Demands like “Stop shooting at us!”

  3. gandhi
    March 27th, 2008 at 10:24 | #3

    The new stalemate could be closer than you think. An Arab language site reported that 17 US soldiers had been “arrested” by Moqtada’s Mehdi Army. The MSM has not picked this up, either because it did not happen or because those involved want to keep any negotiations secret. My take on it here, including URLs.

    Also worth noting that Dick Cheney was recently touring the M.E. and violence tends to follow in his footsteps. Arab media is reporting that Cheney personally ordered the assault on Basra, which just happens to be the major oil industry bottleneck in Iraq. So the violence hasn’t taken “everybody” by surprise!

  4. Ian Gould
    March 27th, 2008 at 11:52 | #4

    The recent relative success of the US occupation of Iraq has largely been due to the politicians backing off and lettign the Generals doe their job.

    I had hoped that the assault on the Mehdi Army was based on a considered professional military judgment that the Iraqi government was now strong enough to succeed.

    So Ghandi’s report that it’s Dick Chaney’s idea is deeply depressing.

  5. O6
    March 27th, 2008 at 11:57 | #5

    PrQ, you write of “a bloody stalemate, ending in a patched-up compromise”.
    Haven’t we had the former since the CotW ‘won the war’? It’s be nice to believe that the latter (aka armistice, peace, partition…) will happen. Or does compromise mean something else, in Mediaspeak?

  6. March 27th, 2008 at 12:28 | #6

    Actually, you can’t call him a rebel either, for the same reasons. As for recalcitrant – to my mind, that implies a superior moral or logical position that he is stubbornly refusing to accede to, so I wouldn’t use that until such superiority was demonstrated.

  7. March 27th, 2008 at 13:44 | #7

    look on the bright side: units of the iraqi army are suppressing shiite militias. apparently saddam had the right idea.

  8. gandhi
    March 27th, 2008 at 15:01 | #8

    Ian Gould, don’t tell me you still believe all the US media hype?! If you read this Independent article, the Iraqi general in charge of the Basra assault actually wanted to wait another three months. Then Cheney came along, demanding they get the oil laws through parliament and do whatever has to be done for that purpose…

    Now that Iraqi general, who was strongly backed by the Brits, is in danger of being sacked. And the Brit-friendly police chief of Basra is also facing the chop. Even while the USA puts pressure on the Brits (camped at their base outside Basra) to go back in and help!

    “It was not the first time the general had been at odds with the Baghdad government. Mr Maliki had considered removing him from his post four weeks ago, but desisted after lobbying by the British.

    British commanders were unaware of the operation until just before it began…”

    This has always been, and continues to be, a war of Spin, waged predominantly on TV screens and the front pages of US newspapers.

  9. Steve Bloom
    March 27th, 2008 at 17:14 | #9

    Apparently the original meaning of “renegade” is more or less “denier.” The M-W on-line dictionary has two meanings –

    1 : a deserter from one faith, cause, or allegiance to another
    2 : an individual who rejects lawful or conventional behavior

    – the second of which is consistent with the original. Otherwise I suppose it’s a matter of perspective as to which of al-Sadr or Maliki fits the definition.

    But actually this presents an inspiring idea relative to the recent suggestion (from Joe Romm e.g.) that climate change “denier” might have come to the end of its useful life. Let’s try it: “The renegade Kininmonth.” I like it!

  10. Jack Strocchi
    March 27th, 2008 at 19:18 | #10

    Pr Q says:

    We are now seeing a repeat of the same strategy, adopted by the Maliki government. On past performance, the likely pattern will be one of initial success, followed by a lot of tough talk, and then a bloody stalemate, ending in a patched-up compromise.

    Every day is Ground hog day in Iraq politics

    . I gave up hope of any political goodness emerging from Iraq from about Day 3 of the war. Thats not just because of the American political ineptitude and iniquity, although there is plenty of that to go around. Its because of Iraqi cultural incorrigibility.

    The whole region is chock-full of barbarians. And has been for most of the modern era. The Bush admin (and its sometimes supporters such as me) were fools or knaves to think that some political gimmick or martial strategum that can make matters better in Iraq.
    .
    They were kidding themselves. As one jaded commentator put it ha year before the surge started:

    I dont think there is much point playing favourites here. There are no good parties in the ME. And no one ever went broke overestimating the degree of political depravity that the region is capable of.

    The only way that peace will come to the region is when the power-seeking class “run out of people to kill”. But then they can fall back on polygamy to replace lost souls, so even that doesnt work in the long run.

  11. rabee
    March 27th, 2008 at 22:33 | #11

    At this stage I don’t expect that what’s happening is going to seriously change anything.

    I guess that Cheney nudged Maliki regarding the situation in Basra; after all a lot of the crude oil smuggling is happening there (the poor Sunnis have to make do with the less lucrative local black market refined oil). What on earth is Iran doing with all the money from crude oil smuggling from Basra?

    Maliki has to respond. But it seems half heartedly. Apparently, there are ongoing negotiations.

  12. Ikonoclast
    March 27th, 2008 at 23:32 | #12

    We can blog all we like. It won’t change anything in the wider world. Maybe we should just concentrate on our vegie gardens and making our next vehicle purchase an electric car or better still a bicycle.

  13. Ikonoclast
    March 27th, 2008 at 23:34 | #13

    We can blog all we like. It won’t change anything in the wider world. Maybe we should just concentrate on our vegie gardens and making our next vehicle purchase an electric car or better still a bicycle.

    But I cannot resist a reply to Jack Strocchi about his comment “The whole region is chock-full of barbarians.”

    If you are referring to the whole of planet earth sir, then I agree with you.

  14. ian Gould
    March 27th, 2008 at 23:55 | #14

    The fighting is spreading rapidly with reports of major death tolls in Kut and Hilla as well as Basra and the bombing of one of the two principal oil export pipelines in Southern Iraq.

    ttp://www.aswataliraq.info/look/english/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPublication=4&NrArticle=74346&NrIssue=2&NrSection=1
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/03/27/2201186.htm?section=justin

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/03/27/2201172.htm?section=justin

  15. conrad
    March 28th, 2008 at 07:00 | #15

    You’re too negative JS. The Middle East has historically been a reasonable place to be. The fact that it happens to be aweful now doesn’t condemn it to being a dump for eternity. I’m sure once it prospers again people will simply look back at that time in the same way Europeans look back at the Dark Ages.

  16. Hal9000
    March 28th, 2008 at 08:03 | #16

    “martial strategum” A delightful neologism, Mr Strocchi. Perhaps this is what our bunyip generals come up with in their planning sessions?

  17. Socrates
    March 28th, 2008 at 08:20 | #17

    Juan Cole reports on Informed Comment blog that there has been heavy fighting two mornings in a row with dozens killed. It looks like the Madhist militia is joining with the government in fighting the Sadrists, so this could easily escalate (again).

    I disagree that Maliki had to respond; there are militias controlling areas all over Iraq outside Baghdad (indeed in Baghdad outside the green zone). So why pick this one to “control”? It is asking for trouble.

    As for JQs comment on the use of the word “renegade” I agree it is spin. “Opposing faction” would be a better term. The US needs to understand that some elements of the Iraq “government” will just see US support as a tool to allow them to defeat their political rivals. And in Iraq “defeat” may mean “kill”.

    This again proves a previous comment that Iraq is not fixed; there is just a slowdown in violence during the surge, and once the US troops are gone all teh various factions will still have their scores to settle. They need a real political solution. The Sadrists are precisely one of the factions that Iran would be influential with.

  18. gandhi
    March 28th, 2008 at 09:32 | #18

    I disagree that Maliki had to respond…

    Yaah, he could have let Cheney dump him and re-install former CIA asset and homicidal killer Mr. Allawi.

    If the USA was serious about installing a “sovereign” Iraqi government, they would give them big guns, helicopters, tanks and so forth. Till then, it remains a puppet show.

    The “funny” thing today is that the world oil price is set to rise yet again as Basra shuts down and a key oil pipeline is sabotaged. You see how it works? Either way, Cheney wins!

  19. gordon
    March 29th, 2008 at 11:59 | #19

    US forces are involved in Baghdad (air and ground) and in Basra (air) according to these articles.

    It certainly provides a distraction from the sub-prime meltdown, doesn’t it? A protest against the US Govt. bailout of banks and the housing market has a website here, by the way (acknowledgement to Angry Bear)

  20. gerard
    March 29th, 2008 at 21:01 | #20

    After Bliar stepped down into the ash-heap of history, British forces surrendered the Basra area to the radical Shiite Islamic Virtue party, a group with its own independent militia forces seperate from Maliki’s puppet SIIC government, and one with strong ties to Muqtada’s nationalist Mehdi army. al Sadr is resolutely opposed to the new oil laws, imposed on Iraq’s puppet government last year, which would hand Iraq’s oil wealth over to foreign interests.

    It was Muqtada’s ceasefire that was the main reason that the “Surge” could be sold as a success. But now, with Cheney demanding that the oil rich province be subjected to the occupying forces’ Oil Laws, opposing Shiite factions have been forced into open conflict.

    It was easy to predict that the “Surge is Working” narrative would turn out to be yet another pile of Pentagram propaganda and I did as much on I think the “More Less Bad News from Iraq” thread on this blog months ago.

    And there’s a whole lot more ready to hit the fan – the fate of oil rich Kirkuk is still undetermined and could become a violent flashpoint between the central government and the autonomous Kurdish forces, and the “Awakening” Sunni tribal warlords that now “govern” western Iraq on America’s payroll are not going to give up their effective independence from Baghdad.

    I think it’s totally wrong to characterize current happenings in Iraq as a “Ground Hog” phenomenon. The history of a New Middle East is being written – possibly the birth of a radical anti-Western Iran-Iraq Shiite axis controlling the world’s largest accessible energy reserves. The carnage is constant, but the politics is relentlessly new.

  21. sleet
    March 29th, 2008 at 21:42 | #21

    Haha. Funny, it seems to be unraveling as predicted.

    http://edition.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/03/28/bush.basra/index.html?iref=mpstoryview

  22. Ian Gould
    March 29th, 2008 at 21:49 | #22

    “I think it’s totally wrong to characterize current happenings in Iraq as a “Ground Hogâ€? phenomenon. The history of a New Middle East is being written – possibly the birth of a radical anti-Western Iran-Iraq Shiite axis controlling the world’s largest accessible energy reserves. The carnage is constant, but the politics is relentlessly new.”

    From what I’ve read, Sadr is far more skeptical of Iran and far less likely to ally with them than is Sistani.

    The Sadr family have tended to emphasise their Arab roots and they were deeply suspicious of the whole concept of an Islamic republic ala Khomeini on theological grounds.

    Who convinced the US to back SCIRI in the first place – Chalabi?

  23. Ian Gould
    March 29th, 2008 at 21:53 | #23

    As sleet says, the fighting isn’t going well for Maliki or the US:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/police-refuse-to-support-iraqi-pms-attacks-on-mehdi-army-802361.html

    “Mr Maliki retreated from his demand that militiamen hand over their weapons by yesterday and extended the deadline to 8 April. This is a tacit admission that the Iraqi army and police have failed to oust the Mehdi Army from any of its strongholds in the capital and in southern Iraq. The Iraqi army has either met stubborn resistance from Mehdi Army fighters or soldiers and police have refused to fight or changed sides. “We did not expect the fight to be this intense,” said the officer from a 300-strong commando unit that has been pinned down in the Tamimiyah district in Basra, where the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army, have strong support.

    The officer said four of his men were killed and 15 wounded in the fighting. “Some of the men told me that they did not want to go back to the fight until they have better support and more protection,” he added. The Interior Ministry threatened that the men would be court-martialled for refusing to fight. Government troops arriving in Basra complain that they are being fired on by local police loyal to Mr Sadr. Members of one police unit had fist fights with their officers after they refused to join the battle.”

    Yep, definitely sounds more like Cheney’s handiwork than Petraeus’.

  24. gordon
    March 29th, 2008 at 22:31 | #24

    test

  25. sleet
    March 31st, 2008 at 01:18 | #25

    So, Sadr has withdrawn from the confrontation.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7321464.stm

    backdoor deal?

    Or was the pressure too much, after the British and US started to get more involved?

    I wonder what implications this might have for him politically. Though, I guess it could have been worse if he had called off the ceasefire and then had to make this move.

  26. Ian Gould
    March 31st, 2008 at 09:04 | #26

    More like Sadr’s just continuing his usual double-dealing.

    “Well I TOLD them to stop …”

  27. jquiggin
    March 31st, 2008 at 09:13 | #27

    On the contrary, Sadr looks like coming out of this as a big winner. With his forces having withstood an unprovoked assault, conducted on false premises (a drive against criminal elements, rather than an attempt by one faction to crush another), he now comes out as the peacemaker.

    Maliki and the Americans have the choice of accepting the offer, and taking the blame for a week of pointless killing, or doubling down and trying for an all out victory.

  28. gandhi
    March 31st, 2008 at 14:43 | #28

    sleet #25 asks: backdoor deal?

    It’s quite possible that 17 US soldiers were seized as hostages in the early part of the operation, then quietly released when al-Maliki backed down.

    I say “possible” because we will probably never know, and there are very few reliable news sources in Iraq. In any case, I agree with Prof Q: Moqtada comes out of this looking much stronger, while al-Maliki’s days are probably numbered. The next round of political deal-making in Baghdad will be interesting.

  29. Ian Gould
    April 1st, 2008 at 09:58 | #29

    John, yes but Al Sadr is showing himself a master at the traditional shadow-play by which Shia leaders (outside Iran) exercise political power behind the scenes while remaining nominally above the fray.

    The Basra militias claim allegiance to Al Sadr but aren’t formally part of the Mehdi Army – so he can deny responsibility for their actions. If he wants to appear to play the peacemaker while it suits his purposes for the fighting to continue he can say one thing in public and another in private.

    Similarly, if down the track it looks like the Al Maliki forces are actually winning, he can make new more forceful public demands for the fighting to end and then claim credit if and when it does.

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