At the start of the military offensive launched last week into Basra by US-trained Iraqi army forces, President Bush called the action by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “a bold decision.” He added: “I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq.”
That’s true–but not in the way the President meant it. As the smoke clears over new rubble in Iraq’s second city, at the heart of Iraq’s oil region, it’s apparent that the big winner of the Six-Day War in Basra are the forces of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army faced down the Iraqi armed forces not only in Basra, but in Baghdad, as well as in Kut, Amarah, Nasiriyah, and Diwaniya, capitals of four key southern provinces. That leaves Sadr, an anti-American rabble rouser and nationalist who demands an end to the US occupation of Iraq, and who has grown increasingly close to Iran of late, in a far stronger position that he was a week ago. In Basra, he’s the boss. An Iraqi reporter for the New York Times, who managed to get into Basra during the fighting, concluded that the thousands of Mahdi Army militiamen that control most of the city remained in charge. “There was nowhere the Mahdi either did not control or could not strike at will,” he wrote.
The other big winner in the latest round of Shiite-vs.-Shiite civil war is Iran. For the past five years, Iran has built up enormous political, economic and military clout in Iraq, right under the noses of 170,000 surge-inflated US occupying forces. (For details, see my March 10 Nation article, “Is Iran Winning the Iraq War?“) Iran has strong ties to Iraq’s ruling Shiite alliance, which is dominated by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose militia, the Badr Corps, was armed, trained, financed and commanded by Iranians during two decades in exile in Iran. Since then, hedging its bets, Iran built a close relationship to Sadr’s Mahdi Army as well, and Sadr himself has spent most of the time since the start of the US surge last January in Iran. In addition, Iran has armed and trained a loose collection of fighters that US military commanders call “Special Groups,” paramilitary fighters who’ve kept up a steady drumbeat of attacks on American troops. Thus, it was no surprise when Hadi al-Ameri, the commander of the Badr Corps and a leading member of ISCI, traveled over the weekend to Iran’s religious capital of Qom to negotiate the truce with Sadr that resulted in a shaky ceasefire in Basra.
That Sadr emerged victorious, and that Iran succeeded in brokering the deal that ended the fighting, is a double defeat for the United States. It is also a catastrophe for Maliki, and there is already speculation that his government could collapse. An ill-timed offensive, poorly prepared and poorly executed, resulted in an embarrassing defeat for Maliki.