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.
By distancing himself from Maliki's government, which is widely seen as sectarian, inefficient and corrupt, Sadr apparently hopes to bolster his credentials as an Iraqi nationalist.
Last August, following clashes between Mahdi Army and Iraqi forces in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, Sadr imposed a unilateral cease-fire, largely to improve his movement's image and rebuild his militia into a disciplined force. Many observers see the cease-fire as a key reason for the recent drop in violence.
But Iraqi security forces, whose leaders are widely believed to be members of the Supreme Council and, less so, Dawa, have been detaining hundreds of Sadr's followers, prompting allegations of torture and other abuses.
Senior Sadr leaders have said their rivals have taken advantage of the cease-fire to weaken Sadr's movement ahead of provincial elections expected this year.
In interviews, senior advisers to Maliki and Hakim insisted that the Basra offensive was intended to combat criminal gangs and oil smugglers. Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a senior Supreme Council official, said the government had not targeted Sadr.
"The forces which Maliki sent to Basra were not the type or size needed for city fighting, to confront Sadr," Saghir said.
Other lawmakers said Maliki had to know the offensive would be seen as a political maneuver. "He wanted to create a victory for himself," Othman said. "Maybe the Americans encouraged him."
Shiite lawmaker Basem Sharif, a member of the Fadhila Party, which has strong support in Basra, said he does not question the government's authority to pursue outlaws. But he said Maliki failed to shore up support in parliament before sending troops into Basra.
"Every big military operation should be based on a political base so the military operation will succeed," Sharif said.
Crocker himself was informed four days before the offensive began and received an impression of the operation's scope that differed from what transpired.
"I had the understanding this was going to be an effort to kind of get down, show they were serious with additional forces, put the squeeze on, develop a full picture of conditions and then act accordingly," Crocker said. "I was not expecting, frankly, a major battle from Day One. But then again it's not clear to me that they'd decided that's what they were going to do. The enemy has a vote in combat."
Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top political adviser to Maliki, defended the prime minister's handling of the Basra operation, while acknowledging that it "did not work as well" as expected.
"The plan of Basra is not new," Rikabi said, adding that the government had even set up a headquarters in Basra to prepare for the strike. "He's been working on it for more than six months."
Rikabi said Maliki decided to launch the offensive on March 25 after learning that the security situation in the city was deteriorating quickly. He said physicians in the city had gone on strike because two of their colleagues had been killed and scores of people were being killed daily. Rikabi said the prime minister consulted his security advisers, his ministerial security committee and U.S. military commanders before dispatching troops. He rejected the criticism that the operation had political goals, saying the objective was to apprehend specific outlaws.
A senior official in Iraq's Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss military operations publicly, said Iraqi troops were overwhelmed by the second day of fighting.
"I was afraid the Iraqi forces would break," he said.
The official said he estimated that 30 percent of the Iraqi troops abandoned the fight before a cease-fire was reached. He also said that soldiers had been hindered by ammunition and food shortages and that some Iraqi police troops, who were supposed to be backing the Iraqi army, had actually supported the militias.
The official said the militias had 12,000 to 15,000 fighters -- roughly the same number as Iraqi troops. But being in their home territory gave the militias an advantage, he said.
As the fighting progressed, the official said, the militias received weapons from Iran, including mortars and other large weapons, a charge Iranian officials have persistently denied. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, received crucial air support from U.S. and British forces. "If the British and American forces were not there, the Mahdi Army would have gained a victory," he said.
On March 30, Sadr issued a statement, negotiated in the Iranian city of Qom, ordering his fighters to lay down their arms, provided the Iraqi government stopped conducting raids and detaining his followers and provided amnesty to his fighters. By the next day, attacks had dramatically subsided.
"It showed that the majority of Moqtada's followers obeyed his orders," said Sharif, the Shiite lawmaker from the Fadhila Party. "Maybe it's a message to the Iraqi government and the Americans that [Sadr] is able to control Iraq and turn it from a bad state to a good state" overnight, he said.
Many Sunni politicians applauded Maliki for going after Shiite militias after months of targeting mostly Sunni insurgents. Many Sunnis now view Iran as a greater enemy than the United States.
"What is behind those militias is the Iranian influence," said Falluji, the Sunni lawmaker. "So [Maliki's] willingness to comfort these groups and to try and end the state of chaos which Iran wants to sow in Iraqi society has made him stronger."
But Falluji was concerned that Sadr had met with Maliki's advisers in Iran. "The events in Basra have shown the weakness of the American role in Iraq and the strength of Iranian influence in Iraq," he said.
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.