Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Joost the Facts

Joost Hilterman fills in some of the blanks on the recent anti-Sadr operation in Basra (via Juan Cole). In particular, Hilterman highlights the factionalized make-up of the Iraqi military forces that were brought in to engage Sadr's militia. Contrary to many characterizations that Maliki was leading a "national" army against outlaw Shiite groups, the underlying dynamic was of a power struggle between Shiite factions/militias:

"I think it was a dual campaign, on the one hand, by the Iraqi government, which wanted to impose its sovereignty over Al-Basrah, which has been lawless, and secondly, it's a campaign based on the desire by one of the ruling parties, which has its own militia, [the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim] with its Badr Corps, to push back the Sadr movement and its militia, the Mahdi Army, especially since provincial council elections have been planned for the fall in which the Sadr movement is likely to do much better than the Supreme Council."

Hiltermann says the political nature of the power struggle quickly became apparent as the fighting began. The national army units involved were units from southern Iraq, where the recruiting has been heavily from the Supreme Council's Badr Organization.

He says that the other major component of the Iraqi Army, recruits from the Kurdish militias in northern Iraq, "would not go down to the south to fight this kind of fight."

As the clashes intensified, the 28,000 soldiers involved in the operation proved unable to quickly drive al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army from the streets, despite U.S. air support. In the interim, Sadrists in other towns in the south, as well as in Baghdad's sprawling Al-Sadr City slum, tactically spread the fighting there. That escalated the stakes for al-Maliki's government to unacceptable levels as it raised fears of a general insurrection by al-Sadr's forces. [emphasis added]

The last highlighted excerpt emphasizes, again, the importance of motivation. We underestimate that quality at our peril. Hilterman also gives a pretty concise overview of some of the major Basra players:

Hiltermann says Al-Basrah remains divided among three groups. One, the Shi'ite Al-Fadilah (Virtue) Party, is associated with provincial Governor Muhammad Wa'ili. It stayed out of the fray while the troops and the Sadrists battled.

Hiltermann says that Al-Fadilah "has done very well for itself, and they have the governor position and they control the oil company there, so they have a very good share of the oil trade and the oil smuggling that is going on there. The other groups are trying to get a cut of that and, of course, have shared power to some extent, with Supreme Council dominating security institutions and the Sadrists being involved in the police and being very strong on the street." [...]

The...thing to watch will be the governorate-council elections later this year. In the aftermath of last week's fighting, the question is whether the rival Shi'ite parties will now accept the ballot box as the way to balance power between them or will continue to try force. What they decide will go a long way toward defining the stability of Iraq.

It comes down to this: will ISCI and their US/Iranian backers risk losing ground to Sadr in the south by acquiescing to free and fair elections? If so, a measure of stability is possible. If not, and they either try to scuttle elections or once again weaken the Sadrists' position through military campaign, violence will resume with considerable intensity.

Given the Bush administration's track record, I'd bet on the latter. John McCain should be very, very concerned.

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