Basra Confusion

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 1 month ago

One commenter wants The Captain’s Journal to update the Basra analysis because the Iraqi Army now “owns Basra.”  Indeed.  We do not engage in talking points, nor do we jump quickly on analysis results.  Our commentary and analysis is usually careful and measured.  General Petraeus is careful and measured too, and he feels that the campaign for Basra will last months.  So let’s survey a few analysts on the current state of affairs on Basra and the Shi’a situation.  Let’s begin with Nibras Kazimi.

Anonymous British commanders had told the UK’s Telegraph a couple of days ago that the Iraqi Army’s military operation in Basra was an “unmitigated disaster” and that the Iraqi commander leading it, General Mohan al-Freiji, is a “dangerous lunatic”.

It’s funny how the story never seems to get around to the point that the Iraqi Army managed to achieve in Basra what the British never could, namely, to control the city and smash the organized crime cartels.

I mean, just the image of the Sadrists being evicted from their main office in Basra two days ago should have been enough to clue-in some observers out there as to who ended up winning in Basra, despite the hasty forecasts of the media and their associated go-to ‘experts’.

But I guess it isn’t, since most reporters are still swooning over Muqtada al-Sadr’s latest threat of an “all out war” and are still peddling discredited gossip that overstates Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs.

Got that?  Kazimi knows more than Army intelligence in Iraq, enough to know that talk about Iranian influence is overblown and discredited gossip.  Perhaps someone ought to have told Petraeus before his testimony to congress.  Continuing with Kazimi:

… some in Maliki’s circle has come to believe this rumor: British intelligence deliberately allowed Basra to turn into a hellhole so that this port city would never rival Dubai, whose princes bankroll British intelligence operations across the Middle East. Hey it’s just a rumor, right? But it get fishier when it’s synced-up with intelligence reports reaching Maliki’s office that allege that the Maktoum royals of Dubai have been funding some of Basra’s militias.

Oh my.  The Captain’s Journal fears that Kazimi might have taken a blow to the head.  Finally, Kazimi invokes a hate-relationship he has to ask for Arabic translators.

In other news, I’d like some help in figuring this out: are any of these following experts fluent in Arabic, and by fluent I don’t mean ‘Marc Lynch fluent’ but rather actually fluent: Bruce Hoffman, Kenneth M. Pollock, Juan Cole, Ira M. Lapidus, and Reuel M. Gerecht.

We don’t understand this obsession with hatred of Marc Lynch.  But since he has taken off on him again and ventured outside the constraints of the subject, we’ll turn our attention to other analysts.

Mostafa Zein with Dar Al-Hayat opines on al-Hakim’s party, the real winner in all of this, saying:

The Council’s spokesperson, Ali al-Adib, considers that the culture of the entire region is Islamic, written in Arabic. In other words, al-Adibdenies the existence of Arab culture, except in the framework of Islamic culture. When he talks about this culture, we understand that he only means its inherited sectarian component. Thus, ties with Iran go beyond politics, in terms of interest, and are deeply cultural and historical as they bring both sides together.

The danger of such remarks is that they dwarf culture down to the sectarian perception. It is as dangerous as the perception held by the “jihadists,” namely that their totalitarian type of thought is universal. Both sides cast out from paradise anyone who opposes them. Both sides have a unilateralist view of culture. They do not take into consideration the fact that any type of thought, whether or not religious, in any language, is based in its historicaland cultural framework, and can have an impact on the environment in which it develops and by which it is influenced … What concerns us here is that while he builds his relationship with Iran on a sectarian basis, he sees the interest of Iraq only from this angle, Iran sees this relationship only from the angle of guaranteeing its interests as a state with a history dating back to pre-Islam and its sects. Perhaps the most recent confrontation in Basra between the government and the Sadrists is the best example to support this premise.

Tehran sided with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and al-Hakim against al-Sadr. Iran had bet on both sides for a number of reasons. The most important of these reasons is that al-Hakim was and remains the most enthusiastic supporter of federalism. He did not object to the constitution that sets out a federal identity for Iraq, made up of sects and ethnicities – “The Arabs (in Iraq) are a part of the Arab Nation”. On the other hand, al-Sadr opposed the constitution, federalism and the division of the country’s wealth, and this naturally is not in Iran’s interest.

Iran’s support for al-Hakim and Sadr, prior to and after the war, eventually had to reach the point of making preferences, especially at such a critical period. The upcoming provincial council elections will determine the future of Southern Iraq and the relationship of the periphery to the central authority. It is in Iran’s interest for al-Hakim to wield influence in this region which borders Iran.

Got that?  Iran is deeply involved in Iraq, and al-Hakim is the best friend of Iran due to his party’s view of federalism inside Iraq.  Federalism, implies Zein, is deeply beneficial to Iran because of the weak state and strong sectarian ties it would engender.  So let’s turn to another Middle East analyst, Daniel Graeber who published a commentary with UPI.

“At some point,” White adds, “Maliki and Sadr had a falling out, mainly because of U.S. pressure on Maliki to distance himself and his government from this brash, ambitious and anti-American cleric and his violent Mahdi Army and U.S. pressure on Sadr rival Abdul Aziz al-Hakim to support Maliki in order to supplant Sadr.”

Hakim began to worry about the Sadrist influence in the Shiite south as most of Sadr’s group fled to Basra shortly after the U.S. troop surge. Hakim saw his influence in the Maliki government as an opportunity to take more control over Basra and its key oil reserves. In March U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney met with Hakim for several hours outside of the Green Zone. Hakim emerged saying he saw eye to eye with Cheney on security issues.

The day after Cheney’s visit with Hakim, a reconciliation conference in Baghdad failed from the start as Sadrist representatives stormed out of the meeting over complaints of marginalization in Parliament. The following day, March 19, under intense U.S. pressure, the three-member presidency council approved a slate of laws, including one that paved the way for October provincial elections, after Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi of SIIC lifted his objection.

As Cheney left Baghdad for Washington, Maliki left for Basra to oversee security operations. Sadr loyalists at this point held many of the key positions in the south because of dissatisfaction with Hakim loyalists there. Maliki decided it was time to show the world that Iraqi security forces could lead an assault without the help of the U.S. military and took on the militias in Basra.

A June 2007 report by the International Crisis Group describes Basra as the defacto economic capital of Iraq because of its port access and oil reserves. The SIIC wanted to control Basra from Baghdad, while the Sadrists were happy to control things from the streets. Hakim was not on good terms with the Sadrists, accusing the group of assassinating SIIC governors in August 2007 and his own brother, Ayatollah Bakr al-Hakim, in 2003. The conflict in Basra in late March 2008 put Hakim and Maliki against Sadr, and the political arena became a bloody battle for control.

Maliki understands his government is rife with corruption and suffers from incompetence, so he sees his battle with Sadr as an opportunity to boost legitimacy in Baghdad.

“Maliki might have wanted to demonstrate that he could act on his own without (the U.S. military) in a show of strength. If so, it backfired,” White said.

The conflict in Basra was largely a political move, setting the stage for the October elections. Meanwhile, Iran is seeing the unraveling of the Shiite blocs in Iraq, and with no clear winner coming out of Basra, Tehran is backing every horse in the race. Despite a variety of political conflicts underneath the surface of the Basra conflict, it is the upcoming provincial elections that dominate the Shiite row.

With Maliki limping back to Baghdad, his perception that he could emerge as an able leader dissolved. It appears he is at the mercy of Tehran and, closer to home, the SIIC and Hakim. Beyond that, both leaders must answer to Iran before they answer to the United States.

Got that? Maliki is limping back to Baghdad at the mercy of Tehran, while the U.S. is not the strongest force in the region by any assessment.

Next, we observe that Tigerhawk declares, following a New York Times report, that the battle is over and has been wonEd Morrissey waxes positive about Basra and the return of the Sunnis to the government, connecting the two ideas in his post.  Mohammed Fadhil says that the war is far from being over, while he had previously said:

Some people began to mock the operation calling it “Qadissiyat Al-Maliki” (in reference to Qadissiyat Saddam, the name Saddam used to call the 8-year war with Iran) others went as far as calling it the Rats Charge instead of Knights Charge. The reason is that the leader was there in person yet he couldn’t finish the job.

That should be enough.  Let’s summarize.  Iran is empowered now more than ever, or not, depending upon which analysis you believe.  Iraqi troops behaved just swimmingly, or not, depending upon which analysis you believe.  It’s completely over, done with and completed, or not, depending upon which analysis you believe.

The Captain’s Journal knows this.  In conventional warfare, decisive battles can be fought in several days or weeks that set the pace for a campaign and literally determine its outcome.  In counterinsurgency, it’s just not that way.  To understand this point, we need to go no further than Fallujah.  One could have claimed that victory was achieved – it was done, completed and finished on schedule in late 2004 after the second battle of Fallujah.  Of course, this claim would have been a lie, even if unintentional.

Fallujah required literally three more years of conflict, finally ending with Operation Alljah with the 2/6 Marines in 2007.  This fact is not a vociferous call for depression or negative press or charges of anti-war bias, even though usually reflexively taken that way by the political right.  Quite the contrary.  It is a call to patience, despite the felt need for good news now.  Good news may not be as timely as we would like in COIN, but it is almost always connected to commitment.

**** UPDATE ****

Nibras Kazimi kindly contacted us and corrected an error: “The translated Al-Hayat article you cite is mistaken: Ali al-Adib is a member of the Da’awa Party, and not of Al-Hakim’s Supreme Council. Al-Zein is a Lebanese writer.”


  1. On April 23, 2008 at 8:14 am, batman said:

    Thanks for the responsive post, but frankly its as clear as mud. If the criminals have been cleared from the streets and some degree of normalcy returned to the lives of citizens, that would appear to be a good thing and also a feather in Maliki’s cap. If the IA has been able to obtain control over the ports, which are apparently a lifeline for Iraqi commerce, that would also seem to be a significant development, strengthening the central govt and the Iraqi economy overall at the expense of criminal gangs. If the IA can limit the smuggling and diversion of oil and return those revenues to the central govt, that would seem to simultaneously strengthen the govt and rob the criminals that were running Basra of an important source of funding. If the Iranians are backing off supporting the mafia that was stealing the oil, running the ports, terrorizing the people, and openly attacking U.S., British, and IA forces, and are now placing their bets on SIIC, which is at least functioning within the democratic institutions, then that would seem to be a positive development.

    If SIIC are indeed as some suggest, also Iranian puppets, then I would contend they are better than the Mahdi Army, for obvious reasons. They may try to establish a federal system and exercise greater control of Basra oil, but at least they were not stealing it outright, killing U.S. and British forces, and wreaking havoc across the land.

    SIIC may be friends of Iran, but the gangs that have been running the south appear to be outright Iranian proxies, if not actual Iranians, trying their best to undo Iraqi democracy. If they have pulled back, whether because of the strength of the IA, or even because Iran directed them to do so, seems to be a significant development. Why we can’t get good information about what is going on is beyond me.

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You are currently reading "Basra Confusion", entry #1056 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Basra,Counterinsurgency,Iran,Iraq and was published April 22nd, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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