The reports last year of security returning to the city were, as expected, greatly exaggerated, so suddenly it’s ultimatum time. The battles are bloody, confirms Sky News, but the Brits are nowhere to be found. Why? Danger Room knows, and Noah Shachtman draws the obvious conclusion:

So the Brits bail, and Basra is “essentially divided up among Shi’ite party mafias, each of which had its own form of extortion and corruption,” as Anthony Cordesman puts it today. Isn’t this an extremely bad omen for an American troop withdrawal, under a would-be President Obama or Clinton? How would a country-wide draw-down be different than this local one?

Good question, one that’s been asked before. But the truth is that this train wreck is four years in the making and stems from the British version of our own mistake in waging war undermanned and on the cheap. They’ve had fewer than 10,000 troops in country to police the south for almost four years; because their footprint was so light, they gravitated towards the disastrous go-along-to-get-along strategy in Basra that Steven Vincent warned about in 2005, days before one of the militias who now rule the city put a bullet in his head. The Guardian’s been writing about the transformation of the area into a Shiite gangland for the better part of a year, in increasingly alarming terms. The British solution? Withdrawal and a premature handover of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces, which brings us to where we are today, with U.S. troops wondering if they’ll have to take over in that region too.

The burning question: Where’s Sadr in all this? Suddenly the Mahdi Army’s facing off with U.S. and Iraqi troops not just in Basra but in Baghdad, and yet the last word from the great man on the subject was that they should maintain their ceasefire and confine themselves to “sit-ins” as protest. Either they’ve tuned him out or they’ve tuned someone else in (or both). How hard does the fighting have to get before he formally blesses it in order to avoid the appearance of his troops operating against his wishes?

Update: To flip the script on Noah, if the Iraqi Army rolls in there and cracks heads, won’t we be seeing that cited as evidence in every Democratic campaign commercial from here on out that occupation forces aren’t needed anywhere in Iraq anymore? Even though it’s clearly not true?

Tags: Barack Obama