Spinning the Bloodshed in Basra

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 27, 2008; 1:43 PM

As fighting rages in Basra, the White House is unleashing a forceful spin campaign to frame the Iraqi government's offensive there as a positive outcome of the U.S. troop surge and a symbol of better days to come.

Speaking to an invitation-only audience at an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, this morning, President Bush argued that the Basra incursion "shows the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge" and "demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is committed to protecting them. . . .

"The enemy, you know, will try to fill the TV screens with violence," he scoffed. "But the ultimate result will be this: Terrorists and extremists in Iraq will know they have no place in a free and democratic society."

But is the bloodshed in Basra an example of a unified central government asserting itself and the Iraqi army standing up? Or is it further evidence of the internecine strife ravaging the country? Will Basra become a symbol of the restoration of the rule of law? Or will it turn out to be a step toward heightened violence?

There is plenty of reason to doubt the White House spin. Just look at what's happening on the ground, compare that to what the U.S. military is saying about it, and recall the administration's many previous statements of optimism about Iraq.

The Iraq Coverage

Sudarsan Raghavan and Sholnn Freeman write in The Washington Post: "As Shiite militiamen and Iraqi security forces battled for a second day in the southern city of Basra on Wednesday, with growing shortages of food, water and other basic necessities, . . . Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave the militias 72 hours to lay down their weapons or face severe penalties. But there were no signs of surrender. Instead, his troops, backed in places by U.S. and British intelligence aircraft, began battling gunmen in other Shiite-dominated parts of Iraq as well. . . .

"Politicians and analysts said that the Basra offensive, which appears to focus on Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, is a risky gamble by Maliki. Failure could strengthen the militias, increase Iran's ability to influence events in Iraq and lead to more reliance on the United States to bolster the central government. . . .

"In Washington, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters that the Iraqi government's efforts against the militias were 'an indication of the continued maturation of this government in its willingness and capacity to take increasing responsibility for security.'

"But Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator . . . said the timing could help Shiite militias and neighboring Iran ahead of next month's visit to Washington by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, who will deliver to Congress a report card on Iraq's progress. 'People have ill-advised Maliki,' Othman said. 'The militias like the timing. Iran likes the timing. They want to show there's no progress in Iraq.'"

And in Basra itself, "besieged residents described growing deprivation. . . .

"'Nobody can move,' said Hassan Muhammad Jasim, an emergency aid worker who lives in the Jubaila neighborhood in central Basra. Since Tuesday night, he's lived with the sound of heavy gunfire.

"In one neighborhood, a 23-year-old man carrying food and clean water for his family was shot, witnesses said. People called an ambulance, but there was no response. He bled to death."

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