Basra Assault Exposed U.S., Iraqi Limits

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 4, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 3 -- When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive in Basra last week, he consulted only his inner circle of advisers. There were no debates in parliament or among his political allies. Senior American officials were notified only a few days before the operation began.

He was determined to show, his advisers said, that Iraq's central government could exert order over a lawless, strategic port city ruled by extremist militias. The advisers said Maliki wanted to demonstrate that he was a strong leader who could shed his reputation as a sectarian figure by going after fellow Shiites, and who could act decisively without U.S. pressure or assistance.

A week later, his ultimately unsuccessful gambit has exposed the shaky foundation upon which U.S. policy in Iraq rests after five years of war, according to politicians and analysts. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker are to report to Congress next week on Iraq's progress.

The offensive, which triggered clashes across southern Iraq and in Baghdad that left about 600 people dead, unveiled the weaknesses of Maliki's U.S.-backed government and his brash style of leadership. On many levels, the offensive strengthened the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The United States has spent more than $22 billion to build up Iraq's security forces, but they were unable to quell the militias. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and police deserted the fighting, a senior Iraqi military official said. Maliki had to call on U.S. and British commanders for support. In some areas, such as Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, U.S. forces took the lead in fighting the cleric's Mahdi Army militiamen.

And it was Iran that helped broker an end to the clashes, enhancing its image and illustrating its influence over Iraq's political players.

"It was ill-advised and ill-timed," said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman. "I think Maliki had a setback and America had a setback because Iran and Moqtada al-Sadr were victorious."

But other Iraqi politicians, including many who are wary of Sadr's growing influence or consider Maliki too pro-Shiite, said they admired the prime minister's decisiveness and courage. "For the first time, I felt that Maliki is now stronger than he was in the last two years," said Hussein Shuku Falluji, a legislator with the largest Sunni bloc in parliament.

Senior American officials put a positive face on the offensive and its aftermath. Crocker, in a briefing Thursday with journalists, said the Basra violence was not a setback for the United States in Iraq and did not "erase the significant progress" in improving security in recent months. "This is a positive development for Iraq," he said, adding that Maliki had emerged stronger.

But Crocker also acknowledged the tenuousness of recent reductions in violence more than a year after the launch of a temporary buildup of American troops. "Gains are fragile," he said. "This episode demonstrates it."

Tensions persisted between Maliki and Sadr this week. Maliki vowed to continue to go after Shiite militias in Baghdad. And Sadr called on Iraqis to join what he said would be a million-person rally against the U.S. occupation, set for Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of American troops toppling Saddam Hussein's government.

The Basra offensive put on display the growing tensions between Sadr and his main Shiite rivals -- Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Maliki's Dawa party. Sadr's support propelled Maliki into his current post two years ago. But under heavy U.S. pressure, Maliki began to turn against Sadr, and last summer, the Sadrists pulled out of Maliki's ruling coalition.

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