A partial answer to the question of whether Maliki was going to declare victory and go home after Sadr’s truce announcement or hang around and try to accomplish something. I say “partial” because it’s not clear if the ongoing operations are for show — the AP calls it muscle-flexing — or if they’re intended to seriously degrade the JAM’s capabilities. The report from Hayaniyah, a Mahdi stronghold, has them hanging around for a few hours and encountering “no significant resistance,” although a cameraman with them was shot in the leg and claims to have seen “many roadside bombs and mortar rounds.” Roggio notes that 20 “smugglers” were captured yesterday and 14 more “criminals” killed by U.S. troops after they holed up in a school. Who are these “criminals”? There’s the rub:
The Iraqi government has now essentially co-opted the same strategy of dealing with the Mahdi Army as the US military instituted in late 2006. The strategy works to divide the Mahdi Army into legitimate actors and criminal groups. This strategy allows for the government to target the illegal elements of the Mahdi Army in raids under the mantle of the law. US and Iraqi security forces have conducted numerous operations against the Special Groups using this method. This has caused schisms inside the Mahdi Army, with some elements breaking off to receive support from Iran and others defying Sadr’s orders to lay down their weapons.
That stick-and-carrot approach — quiescent JAM are deemed “authentic” and left alone while belligerent units are dubbed rogue and targeted — is helpful as context for Austin Bay’s column on Basra, offering the Clausewitzian read on Maliki’s real aim. War is politics by other means, and the name of the game here is eroding the Sadrist movement and mainstreaming its residue:
The firefights, white flags, media debate and, for that matter, the Iraqi-led anti-militia offensive itself are the visible manifestations of a slow, opaque and occasionally violent political and psychological struggle that in the long term is likely democratic Iraq’s most decisive: the control, reduction and eventual elimination of Shia gangs and terrorists strongly influenced if not directly supported by Iran…
In southern Iraq and east Baghdad, Sadr once again lost street face. Despite the predictable media umbrage, this translates into political deterioration.
Think of the Iraqi anti-Sadr method as a form of suffocation, a political war waged with the blessing of Ayatollah Sistani that requires daily economic and political action, persistent police efforts and occasional military thrusts.
The question is, occasional military thrusts by whom? Exit quotation: “There is no empirical evidence that the Iraqi forces can stand up.”
Update: Max Boot says the intention was good but the result was bad:
The problem is that the prime minister has proved singularly inept in prosecuting operation Knights’ Charge. He tried to repeat in Basra the success he enjoyed last August in confronting the Jaish al Mahdi in Karbala. Back then the Iraqi Security Forces defeated Mahdist gunmen and forced the volatile Sadr to declare a cease fire that was widely seen as a defeat for him. This time, the ceasefire does not look like a victory for the government, because its security forces failed to dislodge the Mahdists from their bastions in Basra. Worse, they triggered an Iranian-orchestrated counter-attack that resulted in heavy rocketing of the Green Zone in Baghdad as well as fighting in Sadr City, Hilla, and other Shiite enclaves…
While the recent fighting will be cited in our domestic politics to discredit the surge, it actually reinforces its rationale. The Iraqi government is starting to do the right thing—from passing reconciliation legislation to challenging militias. Its security forces are displaying more moxie. But they still do not have the ability to go it alone against the most ruthless, foreign-funded terrorists and militias. By retreating from the streets of Basra, the British allowed the situation to spin out of control. That is a mistake we should not repeat in the rest of the country.