Cordesman on what's really going on in Basra

Excellent work as usual from a guy who’s never shied from telling either side what it doesn’t want to hear. I cringe every time I write about Basra since it’s impossible anymore to tell who’s allied with whom and why: Maliki, Sadr, the JAM, the “rogue” JAM, SCIRI, the Iraqi police, and, possibly in cahoots with all of them, Iran. Here’s Cordesman shaking the kaleidoscope:

But it is equally important not to romanticize Mr. Maliki, the Dawa Party or the Islamic Supreme Council [SCIRI]. The current fighting, which the government portrays as a crackdown on criminality, is better seen as a power grab, an effort by Mr. Maliki and the most powerful Shiite political parties to establish their authority over Basra and the parts of Baghdad that have eluded their grasp…

This looming power struggle was all too clear when I was in Iraq last month. The Supreme Council was the power behind the Shiite governorates in the south and was steadily expanding its influence over the Iraqi police. It was clearly positioning itself to counter Mr. Sadr’s popular support and preparing for the provincial elections scheduled for Oct. 1.

American military and civilian officials were candid in telling me that the governors and other local officials installed by the central government in Basra and elsewhere in southern Iraq had no popular base. If open local and provincial elections were held, they said, Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council were likely to be routed because they were seen as having failed to bring development and government services…

There were also differences of opinion over Mr. Sadr’s cease-fire. Was he simply waiting out the American-Iraqi effort to defeat Al Qaeda before allowing his army to become active again? Or was he repositioning himself for a more normal political life? Most likely, he is doing both. He may be as confused by the uncertain nature of Iraqi politics as everyone else, and he may be dealing with a movement so fractured and diverse that effective control is nearly impossible.

Ace calls me the Eeyore of the right-wing blogosphere, so let me stay true to form by saying that if the goal of the assault on Basra was to cripple Sadr’s popular support and avoid a rout at the polls by his fans, it’s not clear to me that they’ve succeeded. The heavy losses inflicted on the JAM are lovely but there’s no way to know what the breakdown is there between regular forces and Iranian-backed “rogue” forces, and certainly no way to know how that pounding’s going to shake out in terms of voting for the provincial elections. Maybe it makes the Sadrists less intimidating, or maybe it makes them more sympathetic. Likewise, I’m not sure why the offer of truce from Sadr is some unambiguous capitulation and victory for Maliki when we haven’t even seen yet what it means in practice. Israel and Hezbollah reached a truce in 2006; it hasn’t done much to stabilize Lebanon or disarm Nasrallah. If the JAM comes out with its hands up, wonderful. If, instead, Maliki reneges on his promise to run them off the field by declaring “mission accomplished” and pulling out while leaving them with their weapons intact, not so wonderful. We’ll see; the left jumped the gun in pronouncing the surge a failure and I’m disinclined to repeat their mistake in pronouncing this a success. The fact that Iraqi officials sought Sadr out in Iran isn’t the best sign:

The substance of the nine-point statement, released by Mr. Sadr on 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 negotiations…

Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the campaign and that he is now in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival and now his opponent in battle, for a solution to the crisis.

Hope for the best but read the Cordesman piece. A Basra free of the Mahdi Army is really only a Basra owned by militias from SCIRI, Fadhila, and Dawa. A good start, but only if it really is a start. Exit quotation: “The Sadrists will likely view their survival as victory.”