Rulers of Iraq usually overplay their hand. Saddam Hussein did so when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, and George W. Bush did it when he announced he had won a complete military victory in 2003. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made the same mistake by launching a direct assault on Basra on March 25. He swore he would crush the militiamen who ruled the city, force them to hand over their weapons within seventy-two hours and make each gunman pledge to forswear violence.
Maliki was setting himself up for defeat. His attack was not directed against all militias but against the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Given Maliki’s sweeping war aims, all the Mahdi Army had to do for the prime minister to be weakened was to survive. This was always likely to happen. The US Marines had failed to eliminate Sadr when they had him trapped in the Shiite holy city of Najaf in April, and again in August, 2004. So it was hardly probable that, four years on, some 15,000 Iraqi troops were going to be able to fight their way through the alleyways of the sprawling slums of Basra and Baghdad in the face of resistance from thousands of militiamen who welcome martyrdom.
Maliki’s failure has been extraordinarily complete. He had gone down to Basra himself to oversee the operation, picturesquely named “Charge of the Knights,” but everything went wrong from the beginning. The images Iraqis saw on their television screens were not of Mahdi Army members handing over weapons but of mutinying police units surrendering to the Mahdi Army and receiving an olive sprig and a Koran in return for their guns. According to US and British spokesmen, we were about to see the new Iraqi Army in action, but there were no indications that it was mounting an all-out assault on the parts of Basra controlled by the Mahdi Army. Five days into the battle Sadr’s forces still held some three-quarters of the city.
It was not just Maliki’s pretensions that were being unmasked. For the past six months the White House has been trumpeting the success of the “surge” and how, at long last, US military forces were on the road to success in Iraq. The networks ran happy stories of markets returning to life and of Sahwa, the Awakening Councils, driving out Al Qaeda in Iraq from Sunni areas and cooperating with the US Army. But as Maliki’s offensive stalled, the real political landscape of Iraq was revealed. For all the claims of imaginary progress by the protagonists of the surge, half of Baghdad had always been covertly controlled by the Mahdi Army. A friend e-mailed me saying he had been walking past a well-known ice-cream shop called al-Ruwad in a shopping area in the mixed Mansur district when the Mahdi Army suddenly opened fire on the police from “several black four wheel drives with dark windows that are usually used by high government officials. They killed one policeman and wounded two others.”
There were other ominous signs that the surge’s success has been oversold by the White House and the Pentagon. Consider what happened to Tahseen Sheikhly, a Sunni who was frequently shown on Iraqi state television alongside US military and embassy officials touting the success of the security plan in Baghdad and surrounding areas. Soon after the Basra offensive had begun, a detachment of uniformed police commandos in thirteen police vehicles (nicknamed Monicas by Iraqis because they supposedly resemble Monica Lewinsky) drew up outside Sheikhly’s house in southeast Baghdad. They shot three of his guards dead, kidnapped him and burned down his house. The next that was heard of him was a phone call in which he said he was being well treated and asked the government to negotiate with the Sadrists. The kidnapping showed just how little the Iraqi government can depend on the loyalty of its army and police.
It was not Maliki alone who miscalculated the strength of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army. This has been a recurrent theme in US policy since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with consistently disastrous results–though there is no sign that US officials have learned from their mistakes. I was in Baghdad in March and April 2004 when US envoy Paul Bremer closed down Sadr’s paper, al-Hawza, denounced him as a “rabble-rousing cleric” and compared him to Hitler. Iraqi ministers were told to refer not to the Mahdi Army but to “Muqtada’s militia.” Ali Allawi, a highly intelligent Iraqi government minister, tried to explain to Bremer that Sadr was important because he represented the millions of poor Shiites whose lives had been ruined by Saddam’s wars and because of the destruction of the Iraqi economy by UN sanctions. Bremer retorted that he “didn’t care a damn about the underclass and what [the Sadrists] represented.”
Within days of Bremer’s action, most of southern Iraq and much of Shiite Baghdad had fallen to the Sadrists. US troops were sent to fight them as the Iraqi police went home. Sadr held out in Najaf until an agreement was reached. In August 2004 during the second siege of Najaf, the Mahdi Army suffered very heavy losses, but Sadr and his movement survived after the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani brokered a compromise.
Now, four years later, the Iraqi government’s decision to challenge the Sadrists has produced a military failure even more complete, illustrating the real distribution of political and military power in Iraq. A compromise was brokered by Iran, with senior Iraqi lawmakers traveling to the Iranian holy city of Qom to see Sadr, who is pursuing his religious studies there. Astonishingly, they also held talks with Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds (Jerusalem) brigades of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the organization denounced by Bush as the sinister hand behind much of the trouble in Iraq.
In a marvelous piece of mistiming and misjudgment, Roman Martinez and Dan Senor–who was Paul Bremer’s spokesman during the disastrous confrontation with Sadr in 2004, an experience that apparently taught him nothing–published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on March 20 titled “Whatever Happened to Moqtada?” In words that were to be disproved within days of their publication, the authors explained the factors that “contributed to Sadr’s marginalization” and asserted that “the full implementation of the surge helped weaken Sadr, not make him more popular.” A week later Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces had faced down the Iraqi Army and were in control of three-quarters of Basra and half of Baghdad.