Congress tomorrow will begin a second round of hearings on Iraq
featuring General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. A
major topic is likely to be the recent round of fighting in Basra,
Iraq's second-largest city, and its implications for U.S.
Although the clashes in Basra have been widely misreported as a
one-sided defeat for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's coalition
government, the reality is that the battle for Basra demonstrated
that the Iraqi government is capable of taking the initiative and
inflicting severe losses on militias supported by Iran, a fact that
will boost its support among Sunni Iraqis and Sunni Arab states.
Moreover, the fact that the chaos in Basra was in part created by
the premature withdrawal of British troops, which allowed militias
and gangs to proliferate, underscores the importance of maintaining
adequate U.S. military forces in Iraq until Iraqi security forces
are strong enough to safeguard Iraq's security on their own.
The fighting in Basra began on March 25 after Prime Minister
Maliki ordered Iraqi army and police forces to crack down on
illegal militias and heavily armed gangs that have long operated
with impunity in Basra, the strategic city through which much of
Iraq's oil exports flow. The government issued an ultimatum that
gave "outlaw" groups 72 hours to disarm and get off the streets.
But when the Iraqi troops entered the city, they were met with
stiff resistance from the Mahdi Army, the Iran-backed militia of
radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The security forces made progress
in clearing some neighborhoods but failed to disarm the bulk of the
Mahdi Army, which launched counterattacks in Shiite areas of
Baghdad and several cities in southern Iraq, the Shiite heartland.
Iraqi forces contained these Mahdi Army counteroffensives with
minimal American assistance, but they were forced to call in U.S.
air power to overcome Sadr's militia in some of its fortified
strongholds in Basra.
After the initial government offensive in Basra was slowed by
poor planning and the failure to anticipate heavy resistance, two representatives of
the United Iraqi Alliance, the ruling Shiite coalition, went to
Iran to press Moqtada al-Sadr to curb his militia. He has moved to
the Iranian city of Qum to burnish his limited religious
credentials. They also met with the head of the Quds Force, the
elite special forces unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, to press
Iran to cut arms supplies to the militias. Iran reportedly helped
broker a truce between the Iraqi government and its militia allies
and al-Sadr ordered his militia to halt its attacks and stand down
on March 30, leaving government forces in control of most of
Implications of the Basra Fighting for U.S.
From the standpoint of U.S. Iraq policy, the upsurge in fighting
in Basra leads to several preliminary conclusions:
The Iraqi government's campaign to extend the rule of
law to Basra was a step in the right direction. Prime
Minister Maliki's determination to attack the Mahdi Army is a good
sign that his government actively seeks to accept more
responsibility and has distanced itself from al-Sadr and Iran.
Although Maliki may have overreached and underestimated the
strength of the Mahdi Army in Basra, government forces inflicted
heavy losses on the Sadrist militia. The Iraqi security forces won
a limited victory, braced by embedded American advisers and
supported by American air power, but some Iraqi army and police
units performed poorly or balked at performing their missions.
While Maliki did not achieve his declared goal of compelling the
Mahdi Army to disarm, he did force al-Sadr to order his followers
to stand down. Sadr, for his part, demonstrated that he retains
strong influence, if not control, over much of the Mahdi Army,
which has fragmented in recent years. Significantly, the Mahdi Army
was unable to mount as great a challenge as it did in launching
uprisings in 2004. Moreover, Sadr apparently learned his own
lessons from past defeats and reached a cease-fire before American
and British forces were drawn more heavily into the fighting.
Prime Minister Maliki has strengthened his nationalist
credentials. By taking personal political
risks to counter militias from his own Shia sect, Maliki has shed
at least some of his former reputation as a sectarian figure.
Critics had questioned his willingness to strike at Shia militants.
In fact, the U.S. Congress had included the initiation of stronger
Iraqi government actions against Shia militias as one of the
congressional benchmarks for measuring progress in Iraq.
Congress should now welcome the fact that there has been
considerable progress in this area. Many Iraqi Sunni leaders have
applauded the government offensive in Basra, and this demonstrated
willingness to challenge Iran-backed militants could lead to
greater Sunni political support for the government in the future.
The Basra campaign may also increase the chances of greater
international support from Sunni Arab states by dispelling their
suspicion that the Maliki government is too close to Iran.
Iraq's security situation is fragile
and the U.S. cannot afford to risk withdrawing troops too
soon. Basra became infested with rival Shia militias and
criminal gangs in part because British troops withdrew
prematurelyfrom the city, leaving a power vacuum for them to
exploit before strong government authority could be established.
The British withdrew to the airport outside the city last September
and announced plans to reduce their force of 5,000 troops to about
2,500 by summer. They now have frozen their withdrawal plans and
continue to maintain about 4,000 troops in the area, which is still
too low. The United States should seek to avoid the British mistake
and maintain as many troops in Iraq as long as possible to assist
Iraqi security forces, which still cannot succeed on their own.
Iran exploited the Basra situation and
will gain much more influence in Iraqif the next
Administration rapidly withdraws U.S. troops. Iran's
radical regime exploited the anarchy in Basra to cultivate greater
influence over rival Shia political parties and militias. Iran's
role in brokering a cease-fire led Mahmood Othman, a Kurdish member
of the Iraqi parliament, to complain: "They make problems. Then
they end it the way they like."
Basra is a microcosm of what Tehran wants Iraq to become: an
unstable arena for competing extremist militias that Iran can
manipulate to prevent the emergence of a stable government that
might threaten Iranian interests. President Mahmood Ahmadinejad has
crowed that once the U.S. withdraws, "Soon we will see a huge power
vacuum in the region. Of course, we are prepared to fill the
gap…." In doing so, Iran seeks to transform Iraq into
another Lebanon, a failed multi-sectarian state that is conducive
to the flourishing of radical Shia militias that Iran can exploit
for its own purposes.
The Bottom Line
The Maliki government's offensive in Basra sought to accomplish
goals that the United States should support: weakening the Mahdi
Army and other gangs supported by Iran. But the operation was
poorly planned and executed and did not achieve the ambitious goals
initially set out by Prime Minister Maliki.Although the Iraqi
government did make some progress in curbing the militias in Basra,
the campaign also demonstrated the continuing need for U.S. troops
in Iraq. Members of Congress should keep this in mind when they
question General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker this week.
is Senior Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.