Stunning victory achieved in Basra, or possibly stunning defeat

Mission accomplished has been duly declared, although the JAM in Basra remains apparently intact and raids are still ongoing to seize some of the weapons whose surrender was the accomplishment the mission was aimed at. I’ve given up trying to figure out who won, a conclusion I reached when I found myself nodding along with this theory that Sadr’s actually in cahoots with Maliki to target the “rogue” JAM units who are operating essentially as renegades but under the Mahdi Army banner. The idea is that since anyone who doesn’t obey Sadr’s ceasefire command is by definition renegade, they can be killed without any objection from loyal Sadrists, which squares with the fact that the Sadrist leadership has itself been killing renegade JAM types for months now to reassert its authority over the movement before its reputation sinks too far. Everybody wins, in other words: Sadr gets to see who’s loyal and who isn’t and Maliki gets to ice some troublemakers. Except that, er, a full-scale urban conflict seems like an awfully long way to go to make that happen, especially when each man stands to lose a lot of face if things get out of hand and don’t go his way. Plus, why on earth would Iran have pressured Sadr into declaring a ceasefire? All that does is make it easy for the Iraqi Army to identify the disloyal “rogue” units — who are being supported by Iran. Ah well. Cloak and dagger sure is fun, isn’t it?

So, I give up. My hunch, as I’ve said before, is that this will end up like Israel’s war with Hezbollah insofar as (a) the media pronounced it an unmitigated disaster, (b) the damage to the bad guys was much greater than reported, and (c) even so, the mission ultimately failed to cripple a lethal Iranian proxy, leaving it to regroup and fight another day after it’s been extravagantly resupplied. If you’re not finding those tea leaves to your liking, read Nibras Kazimi (“Maliki won, pure and simple”) or Dave Price (“Good God, the guy surrendered”) for the “total victory” interpretation. Or, for the “total defeat” spin, try Time (“How Moqtada al-Sadr Won in Basra”), which notes that the outcome does at least prove that Sadr still holds sway over most of the JAM; the Wall Street Journal (“Basra Battle Strengthens Sadr”), which for a right-wing paper is more relentlessly dour about this and what it portends for Sadr’s electoral prospects than most of the left; or this longish piece at Small Wars Journal by Malcolm Nance, who views the options here as essentially pulling out and leaving the JAM in place or sucking in U.S. and possibly British troops for an all-out assault on the Basra equivalent of Sadr City:

Basrah has JAM forces in the Hayaniyah, Jumhuriya, Five Mile, Downtown, al-Ma`qal, al-Janinah, and al-Kazirah sections of the city as well as reports they control the road from al-Amarah, another JAM stronghold north of the city. No one who has ever been to Basrah would predict that the Iraqi Army, even with US Special Operations support would penetrate the Hiyaniyah district, a large swath of poverty-filled slums dominated by the JAM. Iraqi and US Special Operations had to spearhead the offensive there and still have yet to make more than limited headway. The British tried for five years and now have retired comfortably at Basrah airport…

No one doubts US Supremacy on the battlefield, but this is the Iraqi Army engaged now in Basrah and by all accounts performing poorly. Any attempt to extract them will be a victory for the JAM. On the other hand the JAM can easily make it clear that hardball is a two way game, as they have done in the past. They could suddenly disappear from the battlefield, secretly open up those hidden away crates of Iranian made EFP-IEDs and make Basrah a living hell for whoever comes in with armor.

Finally, if you missed the update to InstaGlenn’s post about the NYT correspondent who used to be an officer in Saddam’s army, go read it. If guys like that are never to be trusted, then we really need to rethink this Sunni Awakening outreach program that’s been working for us over there.

Update (Ed): The British have decided to stick around Basra for a while:

Thousands of British troops are to remain in Iraq longer than expected because of the recent upsurge of violence in Basra, the Defence Secretary announced today.

Plans to withdraw 1,500 soldiers starting this spring have been put on hold, Des Browne told the House of Commons. But he insisted that the “clear direction of travel” was to reduce the size of the British commitment.

Gordon Brown announced plans to cut the current UK force at Basra Air Station from 4,000 to 2,500 last October.

But last week the instability of the city was exacerbated by a much-criticised offensive by Iraqi government troops against militias loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. British and American warplanes were called upon to offer air support after government forces were repulsed.