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The Consequences of Invading Basra | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Did Robert McFarlane’s (National Security Adviser during the Reagan administration) article published in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ disturb Iraqi Minister Nouri al Maliki – assuming that he has read it? McFarlane wrote about a conference held in Egypt aimed at achieving “Iraqi Reconciliation”, the fourth of its kind, which was attended by Iraqi clerics.

In the piece, McFarlane expressed his deep admiration for Muqtada al Sadr’s representative Salah al Obeidi particularly for saying, “To end the occupation we must first put an end to the sectarian conflict. When the government encourages sectarianism, it becomes difficult to control the conflict and the issue becomes much more complicated when religious scholars claim to be receiving special support from God to justify their actions.”

In order to add “Chief Commander of the Armed Forces” to his titles and to “fight until the end”, al Maliki’s adventure as Iraq’s prime minister has cost 400 lives and an unknown number of injured victims with the destruction of areas in Basra, Kout, al Amara and south Baghdad.

However, al Maliki admitted he was wrong to have believed that he could contain the attack and counterattack in Basra; the latter spread through Baghdad and even reached the Green Zone so that the prime minister was ‘forced’ to demand the support of the US Air Force and the British Army. And whilst that fighting was taking place, a number of the Iraqi security forces and army were surrendering to the Mehdi militias – all while al Maliki was receiving visitors and exchanging kisses with them!

Several events have unfolded in the days that preceded al Maliki’s ‘invasion of Basra’ and his attempt to fuel a Shia-Sunni war in Iraq. It has been stated that during Ahmadinejad’s visit to Baghdad last month, he had secretly met with some US officials and offered to assist Washington stabilize Iraq in return for security guarantees for Tehran.

On March 21, marking the festival of Nowruz (Kurdish New Year), US President George W. Bush conducted two radio interviews on Voice of America (VOA) and the Iranian Radio Farda, both of which were addressed to Iran. He made no reference to his previous threats and did not reiterate that all options are valid, and neither did he call for changing the regime [in Iran].

Instead, President Bush stated that the Iranian regime and society still have a long road of reforms ahead. He added that there is a chance for Washington and Tehran to settle their disputes – but that the Iranian regime must first change its choices. He declared that the US would then assist Iran in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, since it is the right of the Iranian people.

For its part, Tehran was angered by the latest American plan based on a ‘divide and conquer’ approach and fears that Iraq will become a US protectorate after the US has discovered a barrier against the Shia-dominated government in the [predominately] Sunni Sahwa (Awakening) protection forces. Tehran’s apprehension was quite considerable; especially after Bush declared that the Sahwa forces presently number 90,000 strong (members receive monthly salary of US $300).

Through an editorial written by Selig S. Harrison in the ‘Boston Globe’, Tehran was able communicate its point across to the US: “Unless [General David] Petraeus drastically cuts back the Sunni militias, Tehran will unleash the Shia militias against US forces again and step up to help al Maliki’s intelligence service, the Ministry of National Security.” This was followed by al Maliki’s attack on the Mehdi army in Basra.

Al Maliki believed that he could profit from the Iranian-American conflict in Iraq but it did not occur to him that he himself was a chess piece that could be replaced or discarded at any moment. The Iranians have invented this game and the Iraqis have not mastered it – but the Americans and Russians have.

Moreover, al Maliki knows that his government is incompetent and riddled with corruption, and perhaps he believes it to be an opportunity to prove the efficiency and legitimacy of his government in its confrontations with the Mehdi army. The Sadrists, like other militias, are embroiled in conventional militia practices, such as theft, plundering and assassinations. This is why after giving [Muqtada] al Sadr 72 hours to hand over weapons in 72 hours, al Maliki extended the deadline to today, 8 April, which is the date in which General Petraeus and the US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are expected to present their reports about the situation in Iraq at the Congressional Hearings the week of April 7-11.

Meanwhile, Iran, which had provoked Shia dissensions in hope that the Iran-loyal Badr Brigade would emerge dominant, senses that the situation has taken a turn for the worse. The pro-Iran loyalists have become corrupt and accordingly, Tehran at this stage can no longer use the Shia threat to twist America’s arm in Iraq without threatening its own interests. This is why two Iraqi MPs; Hadi al Amari of the Badr Brigades and Ali al Adeeb of the Islamic Dawa Party (led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki) were summoned.

Consequently, al Sadr issued a statement in which he called upon his fighters to withdraw from the streets – but only after a deal was struck to ensure that Baghdad will stop arresting Sadists at random. However, the deal did not include the disarmament of the Sadr loyalists – despite the fact that al Maliki declared that he would not leave Basra until he achieves this goal.

But these details do not absolve the US from its embroilment in the crime in Basra – notwithstanding President Bush’s statement, like one who tries to wash his hands of those who have fallen, “It was his [al Maliki’s] military planning,” as it was “his decision to send troops from point A to point B,” the US president said.

And yet what is notable is the fact that al Maliki’s battle in Basra took place only one week after US Vice President Dick Cheney’s surprise visit to Baghdad. Meanwhile, talks were focused on the forthcoming Iraqi governorate elections [provincial elections] to be held this coming October and the future of the Iraqi oil industry and the subsistence of the US forces in Iraq.

What is contemptuous is that Bush considers the Iraqi prime minister to be enforcing the law against the militias and outlaws. The truth is al Maliki didn’t launch an attack against “all the militias” that conform to the rules that President Bush had stated, but rather only against the Mehdi army.

The persistence to eliminate all the Sadrists does not stem from al Malilki’s desire to defend human rights in Basra – especially women’s rights – rather it emerges out of calculations related to the elections. The fact is that those in power [Dawa party] are not backed by the Shia, this was proven by the recent battles, is why al Maliki fears that the Sadrists will win all the seats in the southern province council elections. (The Battle of Fallujah, November 2004, in which thousands were killed, took place during the preparations for the elections that were held three months later).

Besides, Abdul Aziz al Hakim of the Badr Brigades was the first one to call for an autonomous south with the intention of seizing control of the province’s oil – which represents 60 percent of the Iraqi oil reserves. However, Sadrists have rejected the idea and stated that they favored a federal government instead. To achieve this objective, Abdul Aziz al Hakim must first overthrow all the Sadr loyalists and eliminate them, along with other militias so that they don’t seize control of Basra and its vicinity.

Irrespective of who encouraged him to such action or even the reason behind his self-appointed ‘dictator’ role, al Maliki’s adventure could result in his rejection by the majority of Shia in Iraq in the same manner in which al Qaeda is rejected and is presently being attacked by the Sunnis (Sahwa forces).

Still, what remains the most perplexing is the US position; ever since Muqtada al Sadr declared a ceasefire in August 2007, the US has been employing Badr Brigades combatants to conduct raids on the Sadrists. This movement [Badr Brigades] is closely affiliated with Iran and moreover, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim had invited two officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in December 2006 to Baghdad to discuss military assistance for the Badr Brigades. The two officers were arrested in the house of one of the movement’s senior figures, Hadi al Amari. More interestingly is the fact that whenever President Bush seeks to illustrate an example of Iranian intervention in Iraq, he cites these arrests.

So who won and who lost in al Maliki’s battle?

In the aftermath of this battle, al Maliki will be more dependent on the Badr movement and its pervasive presence within the security forces. Moreover, he is deeper in Iran’s grip, which will have expectations of al Maliki and al Hakim, as it did last summer with when Muqtada al Sadr announced a ceasefire, so that it may insist that the US must acknowledge its ‘goodwill gesture’ first.

Of course, it is expected that Washington would approve such a move [al Sadr’s ceasefire] to avoid al Sadr from rebelling again and having to announce that General Petraeus’s latest plan had failed.

Irony plays a big role in US military plans; al Maliki and al Hakim heed Iran not Iraq and yet the US military leadership in Iraq depends on the Shia and upon absolute cooperation with the aforementioned two groups that are affiliated to Iran! However, this equation will not come full circle.

In its criticism of al Maliki’s foiled military operation, an article in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ adapted Napoleon Bonaparte’s statement to say “If you want to take Basra, take Basra.” But al Maliki did not take Basra; rather he disrupted the fragile stability in Iraq even further. The fact that those who battled against the Sadists Shia are Shia affiliated to al Maliki and al Hakim clearly indicates that the Iraqi prime Minister has succeeded in pitting the members of one family against one other.

If by invading Iraq, Bush had opened a Pandora’s Box, then it follows that by invading Basra al Maliki has opened a Pandora’s Box of Shia-Shia conflicts, and there’s no telling how this conflict will develop before the situation subsides – if it ever does.