Who is the Iraqi Army Fighting in Basra?

Rick Moran
The Iraqi government continued its crackdown on extremists in Basra as the Iraqi Army is proving itself to be if not extremely competent, at least eager for battle:


Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said it showed that the Iraqi government and security forces were now confident enough to take the initiative against Shiite extremists in the southern port of Basra.

"Citizens down there have been living in a city of chaos and corruption for some time and they and the prime minister clearly have had enough of it," he said at a Pentagon press conference.

At least 20 people were reported to have been killed in two days of fighting in Basra and another 20 in clashes in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, a bastion of Shiite militias that follow radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The violence raised fears that a unilateral ceasefire called by Sadr last year, which US military officials have credited with helping to bring down last year's high levels of violence in Iraq, was coming apart.
Yes, there is a fear that the Iraqi government is forcing al-Sadr's hand. But the fact is, at the moment, the cease fire called by the Mahdi army is still in place - at least technically. The battle in Basra especially is between the Iraqi Army and elements who may be loyal to al-Sadr but appear not to be controlled by him.

In Sadr city, the situation is cloudier. Al-Sadr has called for "civil disobedience" to counter the move in the south by Prime Minister Maliki which almost certainly contains an element of power politics in addition to trying to assert Baghdad's authority in a region that has not known it since the new government took over. Al-Sadr has accused the Prime Minister of trying to eradicate the Mahdi Army's influence in Southern Iraq ahead of elections scheduled for next fall. Undoubtedly, there is some truth to this charge although the establishment of government authority in order to curtail the rampant corruption which is interfering with the collection of oil revenue due to the central government is clearly the dominant factor.

But it is different further north in and around Baghdad. Here the Mahdi Army seems to be making a statement that they aren't going anywhere and must be dealt with. There have been sporadic firefights in some neighborhoods but it is not clear who is doing most of the fighting. US and Iraqi forces have sealed off Sadr City from the outside world while militiamen have taken to the streets with their guns, setting up checkpoints, and forcing shops and schools to close. US airpower has been employed in Basra as well as a couple of outlying districts of Baghdad. But it is the Iraqi Army who are doing all the fighting.

One intended benefit of Maliki's offensive in the south is that it has given his government at least some credibility with Sunnis. They see the Mahdi Army as little more than a death squad and by cracking down on them, Maliki may be doing more for reconciliation than all the laws passed by Parliament in the last few months put together.

Prime Minister Maliki has set a Friday deadline for all armed opposition to the government to give up their weapons in Basra. Al-Sadr has called on the Prime Minister to leave Basra immediately with his troops. Neither is likely to happen which sets up a huge dilemma for al-Sadr. There's no way he can win militarily. And Maliki appears in no mood to hand him any kind of moral victory by negotiating - yet.

Meanwhile, his bitter enemies in the south, the Badr Organization (who are not a target of the offensive) will benefit regardless of when the fighting stops. They will be seen to be on the side of law and order because many of their numbers are in the army and police forces while the Mahdi will undoubtedly be seen on the side of chaos and corruption - not a good place to be when elections roll around. 

Expect negotiations with Sadr to begin only when the government has a clear upper hand in the south. And if the US is smart, they'll stay completely on the sidelines and let the Shias hash this out on their own.
  
The Iraqi government continued its crackdown on extremists in Basra as the Iraqi Army is proving itself to be if not extremely competent, at least eager for battle:


Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said it showed that the Iraqi government and security forces were now confident enough to take the initiative against Shiite extremists in the southern port of Basra.

"Citizens down there have been living in a city of chaos and corruption for some time and they and the prime minister clearly have had enough of it," he said at a Pentagon press conference.

At least 20 people were reported to have been killed in two days of fighting in Basra and another 20 in clashes in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, a bastion of Shiite militias that follow radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The violence raised fears that a unilateral ceasefire called by Sadr last year, which US military officials have credited with helping to bring down last year's high levels of violence in Iraq, was coming apart.
Yes, there is a fear that the Iraqi government is forcing al-Sadr's hand. But the fact is, at the moment, the cease fire called by the Mahdi army is still in place - at least technically. The battle in Basra especially is between the Iraqi Army and elements who may be loyal to al-Sadr but appear not to be controlled by him.

In Sadr city, the situation is cloudier. Al-Sadr has called for "civil disobedience" to counter the move in the south by Prime Minister Maliki which almost certainly contains an element of power politics in addition to trying to assert Baghdad's authority in a region that has not known it since the new government took over. Al-Sadr has accused the Prime Minister of trying to eradicate the Mahdi Army's influence in Southern Iraq ahead of elections scheduled for next fall. Undoubtedly, there is some truth to this charge although the establishment of government authority in order to curtail the rampant corruption which is interfering with the collection of oil revenue due to the central government is clearly the dominant factor.

But it is different further north in and around Baghdad. Here the Mahdi Army seems to be making a statement that they aren't going anywhere and must be dealt with. There have been sporadic firefights in some neighborhoods but it is not clear who is doing most of the fighting. US and Iraqi forces have sealed off Sadr City from the outside world while militiamen have taken to the streets with their guns, setting up checkpoints, and forcing shops and schools to close. US airpower has been employed in Basra as well as a couple of outlying districts of Baghdad. But it is the Iraqi Army who are doing all the fighting.

One intended benefit of Maliki's offensive in the south is that it has given his government at least some credibility with Sunnis. They see the Mahdi Army as little more than a death squad and by cracking down on them, Maliki may be doing more for reconciliation than all the laws passed by Parliament in the last few months put together.

Prime Minister Maliki has set a Friday deadline for all armed opposition to the government to give up their weapons in Basra. Al-Sadr has called on the Prime Minister to leave Basra immediately with his troops. Neither is likely to happen which sets up a huge dilemma for al-Sadr. There's no way he can win militarily. And Maliki appears in no mood to hand him any kind of moral victory by negotiating - yet.

Meanwhile, his bitter enemies in the south, the Badr Organization (who are not a target of the offensive) will benefit regardless of when the fighting stops. They will be seen to be on the side of law and order because many of their numbers are in the army and police forces while the Mahdi will undoubtedly be seen on the side of chaos and corruption - not a good place to be when elections roll around. 

Expect negotiations with Sadr to begin only when the government has a clear upper hand in the south. And if the US is smart, they'll stay completely on the sidelines and let the Shias hash this out on their own.