Iraq’s Murky Battle for Basra

DUBAI — Has Moqtada al-Sadr blinked? Or has Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Teasing out what’s going on behind yesterday’s cease-fire is like reading tea leaves in a hurricane. The pieces move very quickly.

But it looks like this yet another negotiated settlement that al-Sadr excels at. The questions now are why did this happen, why did it stop and what does it mean for Iraq’s future?

Some background: On Sunday, the so-called “firebrand” cleric — who is currently in Iran — ordered his Mahdi Army fighters off the streets in Basra and Baghdad and called on Maliki to stop raids against his followers. He also called for the release of his men from Iraqi prisons and an amnesty.

Maliki welcomed this offer, in no small part because the Mahdi Army was poised to trounce government forces in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and heart of the country’s economy. (Ninety percent or so of Iraq’s revenues derive from the oil pumped through pipelines running through Basra.)

To get the stand-down, two of Maliki’s men, Ali al-Adeeb, a member of Maliki’s Da’wa Party, and Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization in Iraq, traveled to Qom to broker the cease-fire with al-Sadr — along with the help of the head of Iran’s Qods Force. So much for countering Iranian influence in Iraq.

With this truce offer, al-Sadr has short-circuited President George W. Bush’s fantasized-about final showdown with an old nemesis. But it’s not like it wasn’t predictable. Al-Sadr is very, very good at getting into scraps with the powers-that-be and then talking out an inconclusive end to the fighting that leaves nothing resolved. He did it in 2004 — twice! — and in 2006. Each time, the Americans and their Iraqi allies proclaim victory only to have to beat up on the Mahdi Army again some time later. And each time al-Sadr comes out looking better to his supporters and wavering Shi’ites who are looking for alternatives to the ISCI.

This time, he appears strong and statesmanlike. Maliki, by way of contrast, looks weak. After a week of chest-pounding about no negotiations and ultimatums, Maliki has to go to al-Sadr begging for peace. And what does he get back? Demands from al-Sadr for amnesty and a release of prisoners. Plus, no promises to disarm. As Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly wrote, “This sounds like it’s an offer to Maliki to declare victory and then leave town. Or else.”

The situation in Iraq right now is fluid and chaotic but the violence of the past week clarified one thing: Iraq’s security may be getting better, but it’s a tissue-thin veneer of protection against calamity. As this week’s demonstrated, one word from al-Sadr and Iraq can go up in flames.

American military commanders have known this for a while, although they rarely voice it in public. Perhaps even Bush knows it (although this is doubtful given his statements in the past few days.) He’s called this a “defining moment” for Iraq and claims the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the government forces — allied with the Mahdi Army’s rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — as a sign of strength for Maliki’s toddling government.

At the same time, the Americans would love to tackle al-Sadr. For all the talk of “the honorable Sayyid Moqtada” from American commanders, the young cleric and his militia is responsible for a good number of American deaths. On the other hand, U.S. commanders don’t feel like taking on a 100,000 strong guerilla force. No, it’s the Iraqis who usually step into between and negotiate the settlements. They like kicking the can down the road.

Which – in combination with the weakness of Iraq’s security forces – begs the question: Why was this offensive started anyway? The most commonly agreed upon explanation — among outside observers such as myself — is that Maliki decided it was time to fatally weaken his political opponents. The Supreme Council and the Badr Organization had finally agreed to the timing of provincial elections — in which al-Sadr’s party is expected to do well — right after a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney and before the start of the offensive. Perhaps Maliki saw the last chance to strengthen his and his political allies positions with a quick, decisive victory?

Almost all the press reports say the Iraqi prime minister didn’t consult with the United States, but that’s a bit hard to believe. An operation involving 30,000 troops in Iraq’s second largest city doesn’t go down without the American military knowing full well what’s going on.

So why did the U.S. allowed it to happen? It’s not like it was good for them. A long-drawn out struggle — or an unsatisfying status quo — doesn’t look good in the run-up to Gen. David H. Petraeus’s report to Congress, due in April. It brings up all the security issues and undercuts the president’s assertions that things are going well. It does, however, provide a pretext for demonstrating how precarious the situation is, and thus justifies an extended U.S. troop presence. If the building’s about to explode, you don’t send the firefighters home.

This is pure conjecture, but is it possible that Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Iraq was the blessing to Maliki’s offensive? Is it possible that Cheney brought the ISCI vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi, on board for the provincial election law — long sought as a trophy for Bush’s claim of reconciliation — by agreeing to help with a takedown of al-Sadr’s forces? Al Qaeda is already on the run and if the Mahdi Army — the next most dangerous militia, according to U.S. officials — were also neutralized, that would look pretty good come November for a candidate running on Iraq’s success story. Yeah, I’m looking at you, John McCain.

And what happens next? That’s a tougher one to answer. If the fighting truly dies down, we’re back to an uneasy status quo — one that can be upset at any time by a few hotheads on a mortar team. Al-Sadr has been strengthened by this, and Maliki weakened. Instead of a strong prime minister wiping out a political rival, Maliki may be facing a long, hot summer.