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.”