By Mark C. Partridge
31 March 2008: Last month, I outlined some of the inner workings of the “surge” in Iraq, highlighting the diplomatic goings-on that have accompanied the increase in U.S. troop numbers, which in turn have led to a reduction in violence in recent months. These developments include alliances with Sunni militias-the Awakening-and a ceasefire by the leading Shia militia, the Mehdi Army.
I pointed out that one “risk is that the Sunni Awakening and the [leader of the Mehdi Army] Moqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire are simply ways for the two sides to regroup, strengthen vis-à-vis each other, and bide their time until the U.S. military has fewer troops on the ground.”
Another wrinkle has arisen this week illustrating the complexity of the situation in Iraq. On Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s orders, the Iraqi Army-made up mainly of Shias-launched attacks on Shia militias in the southern city of Basra, the largest of which is the Mehdi Army.
The stated reason of the assault is to return order to the city. Since British forces withdrew last year, Basra-and in turn its wealth of oil reserves-has fallen into the hands of the militias. This is particularly problematic as the city is crucial to Iraq’s political and economic stability; the Basra province provides 90% of Iraq’s federal budget; $40 million through its petroleum exports. These riches have been a boon to militias who siphon off oil, which is then sold on the black market to local refineries. A single militia can make up to $5 million a week, if reports are to be believed. This money is in turn used to fund attacks on Coalition forces, as well as rival militias.
There are reasons to believe that other motives are at play though. Some believe that Maliki is hoping to weaken Sadr’s base of support in the upcoming provincial elections, as Slate‘s Fred Kaplan explains:
“Late last month, Iraq’s three-man presidential council vetoed a bill calling for provincial elections, in large part because [Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq]’s leaders [who support Maliki] feared that Sadr’s party would win in Basra. The Bush administration, which has (correctly) regarded provincial elections as key to Iraqi reconciliation, pressured Maliki to reverse his stance and let the bill go through. He did-at which point (was this just a coincidence?) planning began for the offensive that’s raging now.”
As such, the battle currently being waged in Iraq between these Shia forces highlights the number of factions that are at work within the country. As has been oft-stated, it is too simplistic to view the country in blocs such as Shia, Sunni, or Kurd. Within these groups, there are strong divisions and rivalries. Groups such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or the Mehdi Army, both of which are Shia, have a tense relationship-and a history of violence. Furthermore, even these movements have their own divisions; despite Moqtada al-Sadr’s call for peace, members of his militia continue to battle Iraqi and American forces.
The Basra fighting is the greatest test of the surge’s success to date. Interestingly, it is a test not of the U.S. forces stationed in Iraq, but of the alliances that General David Petraeus and the U.S. have formed to neutralize the country’s warring factions. Will the violence continue to spread across the country? If this internecine violence continues, can Sadr continue his ceasefire? And if the largest Shia militia returns to its violent tactics of the past, will the Sunni militias stay “awake” or will the country backslide into the nightmare of sectarian strife?
This looks to be the moment that President George W. Bush has talked about for years: Iraqi forces are finally standing up. Can U.S. forces now afford to step down? The outcome of the fighting in Basra will go a long way to conclusively answering this question.
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