There has been a lot of commentary about how confusing the situation in Iraq has been over the past week or so. While there are some unanswered questions — precisely how much influence the US had on the operational decision, how much control Sadr has over some elements of the militia, etc — the basics seem pretty straightforward, albeit kind of a disaster.
After months of US and Iraqi Army tensions with Sadrist forces (a.k.a. Mahdi Militia) despite a tenuous ceasefire, increasing anger from Sadrists against Sadr’s perceived passivity toward the US, and with provincial elections looming, Sadrists started making noise about ending their months-long ceasefire. At the same time, Prime Minister Maliki, former Sadr ally who has since become a rival due to SCIRI (a competing Shia party) support, decided to exercise some power in Basra, the southern province of Iraq that has the vast majority of the country’s oil. The objectives of this move included reducing Sadrist power in advance of this fall’s scheduled provincial elections, making the Iraqi Army more loyal to Maliki, and demonstrating to the US that the central government is on a path to self-sufficiency. At least, that was the theory.
In reality, Maliki (et al, including, it seems, US officials) drastically misjudged his ability to project power in Basra against the Mahdi Militia. As it turns out — and I know you’ll be shocked to hear this — it’s tough to fight an indigenous force that is highly motivated, knowledgeable about the battle terrain (especially in an urban environment), and doesn’t rely on a strict hierarchical command and control structure. Who knew! I don’t know how many times this lesson needs to be learned, but apparently Maliki didn’t even take it from the difficulty the US has had in his own country. For another regional example that I think is a relatively close analogy, compare the Israeli operation in Lebanon last summer — in that case, too, a state-based army drastically underestimated the ability of a militia to defend its own territory in the streets and alleys, leading to a humiliating operation.
And regardless of whatever you read about Sadr suing for peace, this absolutely was a humiliation for Maliki. Sadr doesn’t appear to be giving up a single thing, and he never wanted an all-out fight (hence the ceasefire in operation since August). Sadr got to test out his fighters, see who was loyal and who was rogue, and then his forces held their own in the battle — and as we all know by now, if you’re attacking and not winning, you’re losing. Then Iran got fed up with the skirmishing in its sphere of influence and told everybody to shut it down . . . so they did! The agreement to stop major fighting was brokered by Iranians, with Sadrists and members of Maliki’s government essentially undermining him by agreeing to what is essentially a return to the status quo.
So after all the talk of this vital and determinative operation, it looks like the only thing that changes is an increasing intra-Shia rift, a weakened Maliki, and strengthened Sadr and Iran. This huge operation mounted against Sadr, he it doesn’t look like he lost anything. Maliki — and the US — played this badly, and made greater internal violence more likely going forward, and for basically unnecessary (and political, rather than security) reasons.