Forced to fight renegades

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.

29 thoughts on “Forced to fight renegades

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

    “Well I TOLD them to stop …”

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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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