by Laura Snedeker
This week, as the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus prepares to deliver a bleaker assessment to Congress on the Iraq War, U.S. and Iraqi leaders are split over the proper reaction to renewed militia violence. With the Iraqi government holding back, U.S. commanders have ordered their forces to press forward in what is turning into a rerun of past uprisings and jeopardizing plans for eventual U.S. withdrawal.
An ill-conceived and poorly-executed offensive by Iraqi security forces in the southern city of Basra in the last week of March triggered an uprising by militiamen loyal to Shi’ite cleric and Madhi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr. The battle ended only when Sadr ordered his militia to lay down their weapons and demanded concessions from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Bush administration has largely credited the so-called surge in U.S. troop numbers for the decrease in attacks on U.S. troops during 2007 and early 2008. But the fighting in Basra proved the necessity of Sadr’s cooperation, as violence and attacks on American troops increased across the country during the offensive, only to return to normal levels after Sadr’s orders. Iraqi deaths, on the decline during 2007, also spiked in March as the fighting spread from Basra to other cities.
The increased violence across the country is heavily reminiscent of battles in 2004 during the first uprising, when the U.S. military battled Mahdi Army insurgents in Baghdad and helicopters bombed the city of Fallujah, where Sunni forces fought U.S. troops. In an attempt to shore up Maliki and the Iraqi Army's underpowered offensive, the U.S. also called in airpower to combat insurgents in Basra, a long-time Shi’ite stronghold. Although Mahdi Army forces laid down their weapons last week, U.S. commanders have moved 400 additional troops into Basra to help pacify the city.
U.S. military commanders criticized the poor military planning on the part of the Iraqi government. Meanwhile, they also moved U.S. forces into Sadr City in an attempt to push insurgents further from the Green Zone, which came under heavy fire last week. In 2004, arrests of militia leaders and raids on Sadr’s offices triggered an uprising in Sadr City during which the Mahdi Army seized control of streets and government buildings and battled U.S. forces.
The resurgence of violence in Iraq has also complicated plans for British forces to continue their withdrawal from Basra, which began in December as they turned control of the city over to Iraqi security forces. British Defense Secretary Des Browne announced last week that his government would not go through with a planned reduction of 1,500 troops, after Frederick Kagan, an influential conservative military theorist in the U.S. accused Prime Minister Gordon Brown of failing "as an ally.”
The reaction of the Iraqi government to its humiliating defeat in Basra has been more modest and less certain. Maliki first considered further raids on Shi’ite militias in defiance of Sadr’s orders, then acquiesced to his demands and ordered Iraqi security forces to cease their operations against the Mahdi Army. This policy effectively admitted a loss of control on the part of the Iraqi government and turned the military situation back over to U.S. forces that have been attempting to take a less active security role.
Sadr, who has planned a rally in Baghdad to protest the fifth anniversary of the day American forces captured the city, is able to shift between the roles of warlord and peaceful opposition leader with ease. He has frustrated American and Iraqi forces who view him as a threat to the stability of the government but recognize his importance in keeping the peace.
The timing of the increased violence in Iraq comes at a politically touchy time for both parties in the U.S., as their respective presidential candidates try to balance the need to withdraw with their desire for a conclusive ending. Given the course of past events, the American offensive in Baghdad and Basra will only exacerbate the situation, and the next White House occupant will come into office with a renewed insurgency, an uncooperative Iraqi government, a tired Iraqi population and a war that grows more impossible by the day.
(Political graphic by The Heretik, who offers graphics for use via Photobucket.)
Nouri al Maliki
Moqtada al Sadr
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by Laura Snedeker