Defeated Maliki Accepts Cease-Fire
Six days of Shiite-on-Shiite warfare in Basra appear over after Mahdi militia chief Moktada al-Sadr sued for peace* and the government agreed in a deal brokered by Iran. Whether this gets scored a “win” for Sadr or Prime Minister Maliki will likely vary depending on the predisposition of the evaluator. Based on what we know now, though, Maliki’s gambit in taking on the Mahdi Army failed.
Erica Goode and James Glanz for the NYT:
The Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr on Sunday called for his followers to stop fighting in Basra and in turn demanded concessions from Iraq’s government, after six days in which his Mahdi Army militia has held off an American-supported Iraqi assault on the southern port city.
The substance of Mr. Sadr’s statement, released Sunday afternoon, was hammered out in elaborate negotiations over the past few days with senior Iraqi officials, some of whom traveled to Iran to meet with Mr. Sadr, according to several officials involved in the discussions.
Still, though fighting was reported to have died down by late afternoon in Basra, it continued in Baghdad, including heavy combat by Iraqi and American troops and aircraft in the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, casting uncertainty on the deal. A strict curfew imposed by the government on Thursday was lifted at 6 a.m. Monday.
The negotiations with Mr. Sadr were seen as a serious blow for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who had vowed that he would see the Basra campaign through to a military victory and who has been harshly criticized even within his own coalition for the stalled assault. Last week, Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul Kadir al-Obeidi, conceded that the government’s military efforts in Basra have met with far more resistance than was expected. Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the Basra campaign and that he is in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival, for a way out.
And it was a chance for Mr. Sadr to flaunt his power, commanding both armed force and political strength that can forcefully challenge the other dominant Shiite parties, including Mr. Maliki’s Dawa movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. In the statement, Mr. Sadr told militia members “to end all military actions in Basra and in all the provinces” and “to cooperate with the government to achieve security.” But Mr. Sadr also demanded concessions, including that the government grant a general amnesty for his followers, release all imprisoned members of the Sadrist movement who have not been convicted of crimes and bring back “the displaced people who have fled their homes as a result of military operations.” It was not clear if the government was willing to meet those demands.
Mr. Sadr’s willingness to negotiate represents a significant shift from his stance in 2004, when he ordered his militia to fight to the death in the holy city of Najaf, and suggests that his political sophistication and strategic skills have grown in the last two years. In an interview, Mahmoud al-Mashadani, the Parliament speaker and a senior Sunni politician, said, “With this statement, Sayyed Moktada al-Sadr proved that he is a good politician, working for the sake of Iraq.”
The continuing fighting on Sunday left the ultimate significance of the statement uncertain, said Qassim Daoud, a former national security adviser who leads a secular Shiite party that has supported Mr. Maliki in the past. But the muddle that has emerged from what was supposed to be a decisive assault has serious consequences for the prime minister, Mr. Daoud said. “The government now is in a weak position,” he said. “They claimed that they are going to disarm the militias and they didn’t succeed.” Asked if the erosion of support for Mr. Maliki could cause his government to fall, Mr. Daoud paused and said, “Everything is possible.” He said Mr. Maliki began the campaign in Basra without consulting outside his inner circle or members of Parliament.
The parallels between this action and the Israelis’ 2006 invasion of Lebanon to take on Hezbollah are striking. In both cases, the party that initiated the escalation into high level conflict inflicted substantial damage on their adversary and were able to claim military victory. At the same time, neither came anywhere close to achieving their political objectives. In assessing the 2006 action, I concluded that Israel therefore lost. Absent substantial new information, I’d have to conclude that Maliki was the loser here for the same reason.
We’ve essentially returned to the status quo ante, which would seem to be better for Sadr than Maliki given that Maliki’s initiation of conflict is a fair indicator that he was less happy with prevailing conditions. The infrastructure in Basra has obviously sustained some damage, making the central government’s task in rebuilding the economy more complicated.
The Iraqi Army has, once again, proven itself to be a collection of amateurs, a substantial number of whom are cowards and/or disloyal. AP’s Charles Hanley provides a timeline of our efforts to stand up a competent force capable of fighting without American support and concludes, “Year by year, the goal of deploying a capable, free-standing Iraqi army has seemed to always slip further into the future.” It’s hard to argue with that assessment.
More importantly, any illusion that Iraq is near political reconciliation has also been shattered. The Western media division of Iraqis into merely three sects — Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd — is obviously wrong, as there is substantial discord within those groups. It’s difficult to imagine that six days of killing one another is going to lessen that in the near term.
The only hope, really, is that Sadr’s support will start to dry up in reaction to this episode. Perhaps war-weary Iraqis will decide to get behind their government. More likely, though, they’ll simply blame Maliki and double down on Sadr. Which, frankly, would seem the more prudent bet.
*UPDATE: Or maybe not. While the tenor of the first reports I received on this, including NPR’s early coverage, indicated that Sadr had initiated this, McClatchy’s Leila Fadel tells a different story:
A parliamentary delegation from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s own coalition (mainly now the Da`wa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) defied him by going off to the holy seminary city of Qom in Iran and negotiating directly with Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and with the leader of the Quds Brigades of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Brig. Gen. Qasim Sulaymani.
As a result of those parleys, Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to stand down, though I read his statement as permitting continued armed self-defense, as at Basra where the Iraqi Army is attacking them and the US is bombing them. Significantly, he calls on the Mahdi Army to stop attacking the HQs of rival political parties. That language suggests that the parties are suffering from such attacks and are worried that party infrasture is being degraded ahead of the October 1 provincial elections. The southern parties have essentially defied al-Maliki and Bush to make a separate peace.
Juan Cole, at least, finds that account plausible.