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.