Explaining The Sadr Surge

sadrWith U.S. forces joining the fight against the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, the Bush administration’s current Iraq policy is to back the Iraqi political faction (led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim) most closely allied to Iran against the faction of Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr’s nationalist credentials have proved a difficult hurdle for former exiles Maliki and Hakim, and their parties haven’t been able to establish much political support in Iraq both because of the Iraqi government’s continuing corruption and failure to deliver basic services, and because they are seen as puppets either of Iran or the U.S., or both. The U.S. likes them, though, because they bless the U.S. presence in Iraq. And the U.S. dislikes Sadr because he has, since the 2003 invasion, consistently demanded a U.S. withdrawal.

As to why the Maliki government decided that now was the time to go against Sadr’s loyalists, it might have something to do with Dick Cheney’s visit to Iraq a few weeks ago. Here’s why:

On February 13, after a long, bitter debate, the Iraqi parliament passed a package of three laws dealing with the budget, amnesty for detainees, and a provincial powers law that “paved the way for elections in October.” The legislation was hailed in the U.S. media as a major political breakthrough.

On February 27, Iraq’s three-man presidency council then vetoed the provincial powers legislation, putting a serious crimp in the “political progress” narrative. The person who insisted on the veto was Shia Vice President Abdul Mehdi, a member of ISCI, because his party understood that they were/are not yet in a position to defeat the Sadrists (or Fadhila, a Sadrist offshoot powerful in and around Basra) in elections, and stood to lose big.

On March 17, Cheney made a surprise visit to Iraq, meeting with Maliki and Hakim and stressing political unity.

On March 21, the presidential council reversed its veto of the provincial powers law.

On March 25, Iraqi forces begin moving against Mahdi Army elements in Basra.

Given Maliki’s dependence on the U.S. for the survival of his government, I’m skeptical of claims by the Bush administration that “Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting” them. At the risk of offering a conspiracy theory, it’s very possible that, in exchange for withdrawing the veto and giving Bush something which he could present to Americans as “progress in Iraq,” Cheney gave a nod to Maliki and his ISCI allies to try to get by force what they knew they could not get by ballot: Victory against the Sadrists.

That’s not working out so well. The last four days of intense fighting have shown just how tenuous were the successes of the surge, and how dependent these successes were upon the willingness and ability of Muqtada al-Sadr to keep his movement in check.

A February report by the International Crisis Group correctly predicted this outcome:

The U.S. response [to Sadr’s cease-fire]– to continue attacking and arresting Sadrist militants, including some who are not militia members; arm a Shiite tribal counterforce in the south to roll back Sadrist territorial gains; and throw its lot in with Muqtada’s nemesis, ISCI – is understandable but short-sighted. The Sadrist movement, its present difficulties aside, remains a deeply entrenched, popular mass movement of young, poor and disenfranchised Shiites. It still controls key areas of the capital, as well as several southern cities; even now, its principal strongholds are virtually unassailable. Despite intensified U.S. military operations and stepped up Iraqi involvement, it is fanciful to expect the Mahdi Army’s defeat. Instead, heightened pressure is likely to trigger both fierce Sadrist resistance in Baghdad and an escalating intra-Shiite civil war in the south.

Despite Bush’s praise for Prime Minister Maliki’s “bold decision…to go after the illegal groups in Basra,” presenting this as “the Iraqi government against sectarian militias,” is wrong. This is another episode in an intra-sectarian conflict that has gone on since 2003, with different Shiite militias competing for the spoils on behalf their respective political machines.

As Eric Martin points out, despite Maliki’s claim that his goal is to rid Basra of militias, Iraqi security forces have focused on one militia: The Mahdi Army. ISCI’s militia, the Badr Organization, (which was founded in Iran and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) has largely incorporated itself into the Iraqi Security Forces, and has elements acting independently as well as under the aegis of the Iraqi state, both of which are fighting together in Basra against the Mahdi Army. This is clearly a(nother) misguided attempt to crush Sadr, and, it seems likely that, as in previous episodes, he will win simply by not losing.

UPDATE: Ilan Goldenberg is skeptical of the Cheney Theory, pointing to the Washington Post’s note that “Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials.” Ilan writes:

Still, the reason I don’t buy this theory is that the timing makes no sense whatsoever from a domestic political perspective. If there was a quid pro quo, the Bush Administration would have asked for a waiting period until after the Petraeus Crocker testimony. Why go with such a high risk operation a week before the progress report to Congress? Makes no sense. This Administration is pretty incompetent about a lot of things, but for the most part they seem to understand political timing.

Eric Martin is skeptical of Goldenberg’s skepticism and writes:

It is…entirely possible that the adminstration official quoted in the article was telling the truth…as she/he knew it. There has been a perculiar pattern of secrecy within the Bush administration (not just vis-a-vis outsiders) such that the Secretary of State might be pursuing some policy without telling the Secretary of Defense or Vice President, and vice versa (with the POTUS included on a need to know basis – which is rarer than it should be).