Basra Mess Proves Surge Success!
Karim Kadim/Associated Press via NYT
The Pentagon on Wednesday said an eruption of violence in southern Iraq, where US-backed government forces were battling Shiite militias, was a “by-product of the success of the surge.” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said it showed that the Iraqi government and security forces were now confident enough to take the initiative against Shiite extremists in the southern port of Basra. “Citizens down there have been living in a city of chaos and corruption for some time and they and the prime minister clearly have had enough of it,” he said at a Pentagon press conference.
At least 20 people were reported to have been killed in two days of fighting in Basra and another 20 in clashes in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, a bastion of Shiite militias that follow radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The violence raised fears that a unilateral ceasefire called by Sadr last year, which US military officials have credited with helping to bring down last year’s high levels of violence in Iraq, was coming apart.
Morrell, however, disputed suggestions that the fighting showed the risks of drawing down US “surge” forces. “This has just begun this week,” he said. “But I think at this early stage, it looks as though it is a by-product of the success of the surge,” referring to the sharp hike in US troops in Iraq from earlier last year to quell violence. He said it was a success “in the sense that the Iraqi government has grown and increased in capability to the point where they now feel confident going after Shia extremists in a part of the country that they had not exerted great influence over.”
Morrell said US forces were supporting the Iraqi crackdown, mainly from the air, but it was an Iraqi operation. If there is a violent reaction, he said, “that is the consequence of what we believe to be the right posture by the Iraqi government: to aggressively go after terrorists and extremists, Sunni or Shia alike.” “I do not think, at this stage, which is mere days into this operation, anyone is prepared to stand here and tell you that they feel as though that the gains we’ve made over the past several months are in jeopardy,” he said. “I think they would tell you just the opposite: that this is a sign that the Iraqi security forces are now capable of confronting, fundamentally, their problems,” he said.
The problem with this analysis, at least from the vantage point of what has happened thus far, is that the operation has been a disaster. Reports on NPR this morning say the Iraqi Army is vastly outmanned and outgunned. Further, there have been cases — how many is unclear — of Iraqi soldiers taking off their uniforms and joining the enemy. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
More from NYT:
American officials have presented the Iraqi Army’s attempts to secure the port city as an example of its ability to carry out a major operation against the insurgency on its own. A failure there would be a serious embarrassment for the Iraqi government and for the army, as well as for American forces eager to demonstrate that the Iraqi units they have trained can fight effectively on their own.
During a briefing in Baghdad on Wednesday, a British military official said that of the nearly 30,000 Iraqi security forces involved in the assault, almost 16,000 were Basra police forces, which have long been suspected of being infiltrated by the same militias the assault was intended to root out.
Still, there’s a sense in which the “success” claims aren’t laughable. At some point, the central government has to have the strength to take on the outlaws and its authority over all of Iraq.
A Basra newspaper editor who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals said most residents despised the Mahdi Army and welcomed the assault. But he said it was obvious that the central government had not consulted with local commanders in planning the assault, citing the inability of the armored vehicles to fit through city streets. But support for the assault already seems to be eroding in several neighborhoods, as militiamen retained control of their strongholds and residents were confined in their homes. “The Mahdi Army is still controlling most of these places,” the editor said. “The result is negative.”
Perhaps this is a case of it being darkest before the dawn, having to break some eggs to make an omelet, or whatever similar cliché one might favor. Right now, though, it looks like the operation will backfire.
UPDATE: Phil Carter observes:
It’s difficult to see how this ends well. This is some of the nastiest intra-sectarian fighting we’ve seen in Iraq. Second, it looks pretty clear that Maliki is using the Iraqi security forces to consolidate his own power and eliminate his rivals. Third, I can only imagine the trepidation being felt by Sunni leaders who are watching this and wondering whether they’re next on Maliki’s hit list. For now, the heavy fighting remains limited to Basra, although skirmishes have erupted throughout the country. If this clash in Basra lasts longer than a week, that’s going to be really bad for the Maliki government. If the heavy fighting spreads, that’s going to be even worse.
It’s hard to see how this gets wrapped up in a week.