The War Over the War

Reidar Visser
Author, "Basra, the Failed Gulf State"
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Reidar Visser, research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and author of "Basra, the Failed Gulf State," on Tuesday, April 8 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments in Southern Iraq, and the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq -- including Tuesday's hearings on Capitol Hill.

The Enigmatic Second Battle of Basra (March 26)

The transcript follows.

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Reidar Visser: Hi, I'm Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo. I work on the history and politics of southern Iraq. I look forward to taking your questions on developments in Iraq south of Baghdad, especially on issues related to Basra and the federalism question. You can get an idea of what sort of topics I'm covering at my Iraq Web site.


Bow, N.H.: How much is Sadr controlling the strategic initiative? It appears his army is capable of holding its own or even defeating the Iraqi army (such as it is), but Sadr knows he can't beat the U.S. Army in open battle, so he declined engagement throughout 2007 and disengaged in Basra once the Americans came to rescue Maliki. This looks disturbingly like how the Viet Cong (who famously never defeated the U.S. in battle) waited us out in Vietnam (with the bonus for Sadr that we did some of his dirty work for him by crippling the Sunni forces in Iraq).

Reidar Visser: I do not think the Sadrist leadership prefers the battlefield to the political arena. The Sadrists were a key force in pushing through a timetable for local elections in the Iraqi parliament recently, whereas the allies of the United States, such as the Kurds and ISCI, tried to resist it. The Sadrists hope to do well in the local elections as long as they are not met with obstructionism.


Washington: The US "surge" was sold as a change in military tactics that would give the Iraqi government time to accomplish a number of "benchmarks." What is your sense on how those benchmarks are coming along, and how are we doing on political reconciliation in Iraq generally?

Reidar Visser: The main problem is that there is no progress on perhaps the most significant benchmark, revision of the constitution. This is an area where there is real potential for national reconciliation, but there appears to be little initiative here right now, and not much pressure from the U.S. either.


Munich, Germany: Do you think that the current strife in Basra has more to do with current issues (law on the powers of governorates not organized in a region) or with the inherent tribal mentality in the region, which has degenerated into Mafia-style conditions? Also, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who once advocated peacefulness and supported democracy, isn't in the news anymore. Is he still an important player in Iraqi power politics?

Reidar Visser: I certainly don't think this has anything to do with a particular mentality. Basra has been peaceful through long periods of its history. Many of its current problems are connected with the fact that political elites from other parts of Iraq are interested in obtaining control of its oil resources, which account for almost all of Iraq's energy resources south of Baghdad.


Peaks Island, Maine: Do you agree with the debunking of the "bottom-up" reconciliation, such as that put forth in statements last week at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Lt. Gen. (ret.) William Odom said: "The surge is prolonging instability, not creating the conditions for unity as the president claims. ... The decline in violence reflects a dispersion of power to dozens of local strong men who distrust the government and occasionally fight among themselves. Thus the basic military situation is far worse because of the proliferation of armed groups under local military chiefs who follow a proliferating number of political bosses...

"We are being asked by the president to believe that this shift of so much power and finance to so many local chieftains is the road to political centralization. He describes the process as building the state from the bottom up. I challenge you to press the administration's witnesses this week to explain this absurdity. Ask them to name a single historical case where power has been aggregated successfully from local strong men to a central government except through bloody violence leading to a single winner, most often a dictator."

At the hearing Nir Rosen said things similar to these comments he made on Democracy Now: "There is no government in Iraq. It's a collection of different militias, who, as we see, even fight among themselves. And we see in the recent Shia-on-Shia fighting, it's not the government against the Mahdi Army; it's one Shia militia, the Badr Organization that belongs to the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council -- sorry, Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, it has different names -- and Dawa, so basically the pro-American Shia militias backed by the Americans fighting the largest Shia movement in Iraq, the Sadrist movement, for control over turf, over resources, and of course over the control of the population in the upcoming elections, which may or may not happen."

Reidar Visser: Unless the surge is accompanied by real progress in the area of political reconciliation at the top level, it will fail to achieve its aims and at worst could deepen the conflict. The problem seems to be that there is no willingness to put pressure on Maliki to make some real sacrifices in national reconciliation. However, what gives ground for optimism in Iraq and makes the country different from for example the Balkans in the 1990s, is that the ideal of a unified state is still supported by the population at large (except the Kurds). Thus the real problem is not at the grassroots level but among the Green Zone politicians who pursue sectarian pet projects.


Rockville, Md.: What are the chances that Sadr and the U.S. have reached an agreement? Or that Iran wanted the attacks in Basra to start? They had just visited Baghdad.

Reidar Visser: The Iranian role on both sides in the Basra fighting is certainly something that often is overlooked. Crocker mentioned various "pro-Iranian" groups that had been targeted in the recent operations such as Tharallah, but failed to mention that these groups are also the loyal allies of ISCI, which is Washington's favorite partner in Iraq. Another ISCI ally, the Sayyid al-Shuhada movement, participated in the anti-police demonstrations in Basra in early March which may have prompted Maliki to escalate his operations against the Sadrists. In other words, there are Iranian influences on either side of Maliki, and certainly not only from the Sadrist "special groups".


Princeton, N.J.: Please correct any statements I get wrong. It is my understanding that the National Police is one of the prime contributors to the corruption and lawlessness in Basra, yet it appears that Maliki used them in his botched invasion attempt. What is their current role? Again, it is my understanding that Fadhila lost a lot of its power when it lost control of the Oil Ministry, yet they still appear to be a major player in Basra. What is their role and objectives?

Finally, it is clear that Maliki lied when he said he was going to Basra to restore law and order, because he only attacked one of the three militias there, and he used the National Police. It does not appear that his goals were political, as both he and Sadr favor a strong central government while Maliki's allies favor a weak federation. Hakim favors a strong autonomous state in the South and Fadhila favors a city-state for Basra. Was Maliki's objective solely for power, and to protect the billions of dollars he has squirreled away?

Reidar Visser: A partial answer to this one: Fadhila remains influential in the oil facilities protection services, and also has some allies in the Southern Oil Company and the local trade unions. Maliki may be aiming for what he believes is the center of Shiite politics, but I think he overestimates the degree of political space available between the Sadrists and ISCI. He may be hoping to emerge as a strong leader for the Dawa factions, independents, and those ISCI members who are opposed to Hakim's federalism ideas, but he probably underestimates the strength of the Sadrist movement among the masses.


Springfield, Va.: Mr. Visser, what is your explanation for the recent events in Basra -- what motivated the Iraqi government to attack the Sadrist forces, why did Sadr agree to a cease-fire, what role did Iran play, and who -- if anyone -- is the ultimate "winner" in all of this?

Reidar Visser: I think this was primarily the result of Maliki's own attempt to build a power base for himself as a strong premier, and that ISCI is a convenient partner. The degree of harmony between Maliki and Hakim is often overestimated. They have completely different views on federalism for example, but both probably hope to benefit from a weakening of the Sadrists prior to the local elections.


Roger: The question of who won or lost the battle of Basra seems to me to put the terms of the fight much too narrowly. The advantage depends on conditions going forward. If conditions going forward for Sadr were, for instance, that his militia physically had been driven out of Basra, or that his prestige was damaged with his constituency or the political elite, then Maliki could have claimed a gain of some sort. That this didn't happen was Maliki's worst case scenario.

Maliki sought to meld together an image of himself and the most popular Iraqi institution, the army. In this, he failed spectacularly -- just as Allawi failed spectacularly when he let the Americans raze Fallujah in the hopes that this would send a soothing message to the Shiites before the election.

On the other hand, Sadr needs Maliki -- he needs him to block the power of SCIRI. Here, Sadr seems to have lost -- Maliki seems to have briefly united the Sunni parties and SCIRI against the Sadr Trend. Which is why it is interesting that Jafari is, at the moment, consulting with Sadr in Qom. Do you think there is a chance that the Dawa will dump Maliki?

Reidar Visser: The Jafari breakaway initiative within the Dawa (or "back to the original Dawa" if you will) is very interesting and goes back at least half a year. It is possible that Jafari realizes what Maliki refuses to accept: that any successful centrism solution in Iraq would involve at least the moderates among the Sadrists, and that ISCI's nine-governorate federal scheme would have to be taken off the table. The Tanzim al-Iraq branch is probably closer to Iran than Jafari is and may seek to prevent any re-emergence of Jafari as a Dawa leader.


Philadelphia: What are the ingredients required in ever getting the vast majority of the citizens of Basra to support a national Iraq government, and approximately what timeframe might that require?

Reidar Visser: Even though the people of Basra have some regionalist ideas they are also quite fierce in their attachment to Iraqi nationalism. What they object to is discrimination by outsiders, whether from Baghdad or Najaf, Shiite or Sunni. They are increasingly conscious about the fact that most of Iraq's oil is in their area and they want to see some real improvement in living standards in return. But the "Basra question" is certainly something that can be solved within the framework of a unified Iraq, as long as Basra representatives are taken seriously in key processes, such as the drafting of the oil law.


Arlington, Va.: As a former military officer, I'm somewhat disappointed in the press for their deferential treatment of Gen. Petraeus. In the military, we called what he is doing a "dog-and-pony show." Contrary to the media's portrayal, what he says is not the gospel truth, but rather his effort to put the best spin on his own performance. It's akin to asking a high school kid to grade his own homework. Do you think he's going to give himself anything other than a B?

So the next time President Bush says "I listen to my commanders on the ground" (which plainly is not true), the next question should be "are not you the commander in chief?" Only the president (theoretically) is capable of balancing the puffery that goes with these reports with the overarching assessment of whether it's working on a broader scale.

Reidar Visser: It is worrying not only that Bush defers so much to Petraeus, but also that he sometimes forgets to mention Crocker, who supposedly represents the equally important political dimension of "the surge".


Prescott, Ariz.: Republican presidential candidate John McCain claims that it was al-Sadr who asked for the Basra cease-fire, not Maliki. Is he right? If not, why doesn't he get any heat for saying incorrect stuff? Also, wasn't this cease-fire brokered in Iran? I think that would be a big deal for some reason I probably don't understand, but the press seemed to wipe that small detail out of existence.

Reidar Visser: It is indeed significant that the cease-fire was brokered in Iran. Traditionally, the Sadrists were Iran's number one enemy in Iraq, and after 2003 Tehran's main challenge was to neutralize them. They have succeeded fairly well with this through the "special groups" tactics, gradually co-opting Sadrist splinter groups. Moqtada's relocation to Iran in 2007, possibly a result of the surge, means that Iranian control of his actions may have increased. Also, his recent declaration of loyalty to Kazem al-Haeri, a Khomeinist scholar of Iraqi origin residing in Qom, is significant. They two were allies back in 2003, but the relationship came to an end shortly afterwards. The fact that they are now once more in contact with each other probably means that Iran has given its approval.


Anonymous: How can the U.S. "win" in Iraq? As an invading and occupying force, how can the U.S. "stand-up" one tribe or sect against other tribes or sects within the same country and honestly declare victory? Or at this point are we after nothing more than a face-saving withdrawal plan?

Reidar Visser: I think one of the most promising options is to reunite the Iraqis on a nationalist basis through separating the Kurdish track. Political scientist Liam Anderson has proposed multi-lateral negotiations to give the Kurdistan Regional Government an internationally guaranteed special status, on model of the Aland Islands, a Swedish-speaking archipelago within Finland. Anderson's ideas could be taken further. The logical corollary would be that the Kurds, having achieved international guarantees, abandoned any pretensions to influence the political process in Iraq south of Kurdistan, and Iraq could have a new constitutional revision committee based on the non-Kurdish areas only. That would almost automatically recalibrate Iraqi politics and probably solve the federalism question, because the advocates of radical decentralization along ethno-sectarian lines would now be a small minority. Instead, Sunnis and centralist Shiites would be able to agree on a revised constitution.


Reidar Visser: That's all for now, thanks for lots of interesting questions. For additional analysis and discussion of southern Iraq developments feel free to visit my Web site.


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