When the Battle of Basra opened on Mar. 25, President Bush described it as a "defining moment" for the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Within days, however, the White House was scrambling to distance itself from the shellacking the Iraqi Army took at the hands of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
As the Iraqi Army disintegrated in Basra and Baghdad-plus Kut, Amarah, Nasiryah, and Diwaniya, the provincial capitals of four important southern provinces- the Washington Post was quoting administration officials "speaking anonymously" claiming that Maliki "decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies."
But as historian and author Gareth Porter points out in the Asia Times, the claim is ludicrous. In fact, the Administration’s fingerprints were all over the operation.
"No significant Iraqi military action can be planned without a range of military support functions being undertaken by the U.S. command," Porter argues. When Maliki attacked Basra, U.S. military spokesman, Col. Bill Buckner, announced that "coalition forces" were "providing intelligence, surveillance and support aircraft for the operation."
When the Iraqi Army found itself in trouble, U.S. aircraft bombed and strafed targets in Baghdad and Basra, and U.S. Special Forces teamed up with the Iraqi Army to kill "22 suspected militants" in Basra, according to the U.S. Command. U.S. soldiers also sealed off Sadr City in Baghdad. Lastly, U.S. military’s Transition Teams are so deeply embedded in every unit of the Iraq Army that the latter can’t spit without getting an okay.
It is increasingly obvious that the White House planned the entire operation. The genesis of the Mar. 25 attack goes back to last August, when Muqtada declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Americans and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s (ISCI) militia, the Badr Brigade. The ceasefire is a major reason why civilian and U.S. casualties have fallen over the past six months.
Maliki’s Dawa Party and his allies in the ISCI, have long been at loggerheads with Muqtada over three major issues.
First, Muqtada is a nationalist and deeply opposed to the U.S. occupation, while Maliki and the ISCI’s leader, Abdelaziz al-Hakim, support the presence of U.S. troops as a shield against the nationalists.
Second, Muqtada supports a unified Iraq with a strong central government. Maliki and Hakim, on the other hand, have pushed for dismembering Iraq into separate provinces dominated by the country’s three major ethnic groups -Sunnis in the west, Kurds in the north, and Shiites in the south. Since most of the oil reserves are in the south, as is the country’s only port, whoever controls the south essentially controls 70 percent of Iraq’s economy.
Which leads to the third point of contention, and one closely tied to the first two: Muqtada’s followers, along with most of the Sunnis and Iraq’s illegal, but still powerful, trade unions want Iraq to keep control of its oil. Maliki, Hakim and the U.S., on the other hand, want to privatize Iraq’s enormous oil wealth and open it to exploitation by international oil cartels.
According to Leila Fadel of the McClatchy newspaper chain, when Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Iraq Mar. 17-18, he "strong armed" Iraq’s Presidency Council into passing a provincial election law. The law sets up an October election in which the various provinces will vote on whether they want to remain a unified country or splinter into separate provinces.
Cheney also sealed an agreement with Maliki to keep U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, in spite of the fact that seven out of 10 Iraqis want the occupation to end.
If the U.S. and Maliki and Hakim are to pull off dismembering Iraq and privatizing the oil, they need to win the election in the south. About 20 percent of the Middle East’s oil reserves are in Basra Province.
But the Mahdi Army has far more support among the Shiia masses than either the Dawa Party or the ISCI. Muqtada and his family have long been associated with the poorest of the Shiia-who constitute the overwhelming bulk of the sect-while Maliki and Hakim have always been close to the Shiia merchant class. The latter has the money, the former has the numbers.
Which is why Maliki launched the attack on Basra.
"Separatist Shiites want to make sure the nationalist Shiites won’t win the election-by killing them," says Raed Jarrar of the American Friends Service Committee. If Maliki can destroy or drive the Mahdi Army out of Basra, the October elections will go to the Dawa Party and the ISCU, insuring that Iraq’s huge oil reserves would be turned over to the big oil cartels.
A subsidiary target of the Basra attack was the oil and dockworkers unions, which staunchly oppose the privatization of the industry. An oil union statement said the Basra attack was aimed at "the planned corporate takeover of the port [of Basra]in order to facilitate the activities of the international oil companies."
According to Sami Ramadani, a London-based exile from the government of Saddam Hussein, "many Iraqis are linking what they regard as a premeditated and unprovoked attack on a relatively peaceful city with Cheney’s visit [and] to the fact that oil and dock workers unions, declared illegal, are fully in control of the ports and the major oil fields."
So how did the "defining moment" end up a debacle?
The first reason was the absolute cluelessness of the American military, coupled with the isolation of the Maliki government.
It now appears that both interpreted Muqtada’s August ceasefire as a sign of weakness, concluding that the Mahdi Army was no longer capable of carrying out coordinated military operations.
Sensing an opportunity, the U.S. and Maliki began attacking Sadrist strongholds, arresting and detaining more than 2,000 of Muqtada’s followers. When the Mahdi Army did not respond, the U.S. was certain it had the militia on the ropes. "We’ve degraded their capability," bragged General David Patraeus spokesman, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith.
According to historian Porter, when Muqtada extended the ceasefire this past February, "that apparently convinced Patraeus and the Bush White House that they could now launch a large-scale ‘cordon and search’ operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra without great risk of a military response."
In fact, Muqtada-a man the U.S. has constantly underestimated-used the six-month ceasefire to rearm, reorganize, and train some of his troops and commanders in Iran.
While Tehran favors Maliki and Hakim, the Iranians have always hedged their bets by aiding Muqtada as well.
When the Iraqi Army attacked Muqtada’s strongholds in Basra, the Americans told them they would roll right over a disorganized and demoralized Mahdi Army. A U.S. advisor told the Washington Post he thought the operation-Charge of the Knights-would take a week to 10 days.
The isolation of the current Iraqi government also played a role in the disaster. According to Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, the Iraqi government has virtually no support outside of the American-controlled Green Zone. That isolation led Maliki to believe that his U.S.-trained army would make short work of the Muqtada’s militia.
Instead, the militia not only whipped them in Basra, but organized sympathy uprisings in every major city from Baghdad south, as well as rocketing and shelling the supposedly secure Green Zone. U.S. fighter-bombers, helicopters and Special Forces couldn’t cover up the refusal of the Iraqi Army to take on the disciplined and motivated Mahdi Army.
"The Iraqi Army doesn’t have the ability to do much of anything," says Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. On the other hand, he says, Muqtada "remains undefeated and looks like the moderate."
According to Ali al-Fadhily and Dahr Jamail of the Inter Press Service, the Iraqi Army simply disintegrated. A Baghdad police colonel told them that the "Iraqi Army and police forces, as well as the Dawa and Badr militias, suddenly disappeared from the streets, leaving their armored vehicles for the Mahdi militia to drive around in joyful convoys."
Maliki was humiliated by Battle of Basra, but there was plenty of mortification to go around. The Bush White House, for instance, had to watch as Iranian Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force-an organization the Administration has designated a "terrorist group"- pulled its chestnuts out of the fire by negotiating a ceasefire between Maliki and Muqtada.
"This failure takes Iraq to point zero or worse," Brigadier General Kathum Alwan told IPS
"Worse" is likely where things are headed. Not only has the fragile ceasefire between the Shiite groups been breached, there is plenty of chaos waiting in the wings.
The Sunni "Awakening Councils" are still being frozen out of the army and the police, and many Sunnis have made it clear that they have no intention of allowing Iraq to be dismembered. A number of Sunni leaders have openly threatened civil war if they continue to be sidelined.
And in the north, Arabs and Kurds are at each other’s throats over control of the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, while Turkey continues its cross border attacks on Kurdish PKK separatists.
As Cockburn notes, any of these issues "could ignite in a moment, and almost certainly will."
Conn Hallinan is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a winner of a Project Censored Award, and did his PhD dissertation on the history of insurrectionary organizations in Ireland.