Militias loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held off an Iraqi government offensive this week, dealing a major setback to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The fighting between the Iraqi army and al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army engulfed the southern city of Basra and parts of Baghdad, killing at least 370 people before ending with a negotiated cease-fire. Al-Maliki launched the offensive last week vowing “no retreat,” and President Bush called it a “defining moment in the history of a free Iraq.” But al-Sadr’s fighters fought Iraqi security to a standstill, even after the government called in U.S. airstrikes. Al-Maliki proclaimed that the battle had achieved “security, stability, and success.” But most experts and Iraqi citizens disagreed. “Al-Maliki failed,” said Basra resident Ali Mahdi. “They are so weak in everything.”
Though fighting in Basra had mostly ended this week, rockets continued to rain down on the Green Zone in Baghdad, the walled compound where American officials are housed. The British government said that because of the unrest in Basra, it was postponing its plan to pull its forces from the region this spring. March was the deadliest month of the war for Iraqis since August 2007.
What the editorials said
So much for the surge, said The Miami Herald. The fighting between a Shiite militia and the Shiite-led government proves that despite our military advances, “the ultimate U.S. goal of creating a unified, stable, and democratic government in Iraq is as elusive as a mirage.” With his showy pronouncements at the start of the battle, al-Maliki staked his reputation on its outcome. He is now harder than ever to take seriously.
The Basra mess is a small preview of what’s in store for Iraq if the U.S. withdraws, said National Review. The American surge continues to work fine. But it was always limited to northern Iraq. Basra was under control of the British, who withdrew to their bunkers in preparation for leaving the country altogether. This “shameful abdication” put the city in danger of falling into criminal hands. Al-Maliki may not have achieved the results he wanted, but at least he stood up and fought. “That’s progress.”
What the columnists said
The battle of Basra wasn’t a simple case of government forces cracking down on the “bad guys,” said Anthony Cordesman in The New York Times. Al-Maliki’s offensive “is better seen as a power grab.” His Dawa party and its Shiite allies have been vying for power with al-Sadr. In Southern Iraq, al-Maliki is blamed for failing to provide essential services, and he is in danger of losing provincial elections in October. “The United States needs to be far more careful” about getting involved in such intra-Shiite struggles—which could easily become the biggest threat to Iraqi stability.
The battle over Basra is hardly internal, said Amir Taheri in the New York Post. It may well have been the first skirmish in a war between the new Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Al-Sadr is based in Iran now, and an analysis of the weapons and tactics of the Mahdi Army last week suggests that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is using the militia “as part of a broader plan to control the Basra region,” along with its oil fields. That can’t be allowed to happen.
If this was a proxy war with Iran, said Jay Bookman in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Iran won. Then again, it could hardly have lost. Though Iran supports the Mahdi Army, it may have even stronger ties to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is al-Maliki’s power base. Isn’t it telling that when al-Maliki and his aides realized they needed to retreat, “they turned to officials in Iran to negotiate an agreement”? That move only solidified Iran’s stature. Anyone with weapons can wage war, but it takes real authority to broker a truce.
Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, is scheduled to give Congress a status report next week. The Pentagon this week said that the latest violence would not influence its plans to withdraw 20,000 troops by July, leaving the total number at its pre-surge level of 140,000. But Petraeus needs to be candid about whether a strong Iraqi government is still a realistic goal, said The Christian Science Monitor in an editorial. “If not, the U.S. has difficult choices ahead.”