Battle for Basra

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

ALL SIDES in the American debate over Iraq agree that the Iraqi government ought to take responsibility for security in the country as soon as possible and fight its own battles with its own army.

In that sense, the decision by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to launch an offensive by government forces to seize control over the vital port city of Basra ought to have been welcome. Those who portray every development in Iraq as negative described the fighting as proof of worsening sectarianism or as a negation of the improved security achieved in the past six months. In fact, it was neither. After a cease-fire Sunday, the fighting in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq quickly subsided; even with the temporary spike in violence, Iraqi and U.S. fatalities in March were one-third to one-half of what they were a year ago.

The real problem with Mr. Maliki's initiative was that it failed to achieve his objective, which was the disarmament of elements of the Mahdi Army and other militias that have carved up Basra since the withdrawal of British forces, at the expense of the Iraqi government. Critics claim that the prime minister's only intention was to favor one Shiite faction, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, over another, but Mr. Maliki does not belong to either group and gained his office with the support of Mahdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

In fact, U.S. commanders in Iraq have been saying for some time that the Iraqi government would have to take action at some point to restore its authority over Basra, the gateway for most of Iraq's oil exports. While the balance of power in the city is now unclear, the judgment by some Western analysts that the cease-fire was a triumph for the Mahdi Army seems premature. Similar assessments after inconclusive U.S. battles with the Mahdi Army in 2004 proved unfounded, and in this instance Mr. Sadr was obliged to publicly disown "anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions."

What the end of the fighting demonstrated is that Mr. Maliki's government and army are not yet strong enough to decisively impose themselves by force in areas controlled by the Mahdi Army or other militias, at least not without the full support of U.S. ground forces. The fact that such support remains available to the government no doubt contributed to Mr. Sadr's embrace of a cease-fire. By the same token, American withdrawal could precipitate a far bloodier conflict that, if won by the Mahdi Army, would be a major reversal for U.S. interests in the Middle East. At best, the battle of Basra will persuade the Shiite parties to fight for control over the city in upcoming provincial elections, rather than in the streets. But the fact that an Iraqi government commonly described as impotent and inert now is willing and able to fight Shiite militias is a step in the right direction.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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