April 2, 2008

NOBODY KNOWS NOTHIN':

The War Over the War (Thomas E. Ricks, April 1, 2008, Washington Post)

Join Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, April 1 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments in Iraq, and the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

Thomas E. Ricks: Hello to all.

As we open up today's proceedings, the big question on my mind, and I bet many of yours, is just exactly what happened last week in Basra and in Sadr City.

I am struck that no one seems to have a good answer. [...]

Another excellent Web site, Small Wars Journal, carried two longer summaries of what people were saying. Here's a comment from there, by Malcolm Nance, a multi-decade veteran of the U.S. intelligence services and also author of a book on the Iraqi insurgencies:

"No one doubts U.S. supremacy on the battlefield, but this is the Iraqi Army engaged now in Basra and by all accounts performing poorly. Any attempt to extract them will be a victory for the Jaish al-Mahdi. On the other hand the JAM can easily make it clear that hardball is a two way game, as they have done in the past. They could suddenly disappear from the battlefield, secretly open up those hidden away crates of Iranian made EFP-IEDs and make Basra a living hell for whoever comes in with armor. JAM's "brave, but stupid" street tactics have a low survivability rate against U.S. soldiers but they are more than a match for the Iraqi army and police of 2008. The Iraqi army of 2009 may be a different matter, but there is no doubt that the JAM may use on any more cease-fires to train their cadres so they can continue to fight the Iraqi and U.S. army like Hezbollah fought Israel in Lebanon.

"Update #1: As predicted, in a replay of the 2004 and 2005 Mahdi militia uprisings, Moqtada al-Sadr ordered the Jaish al-Mahdi to conduct the cease-fire-and-vanish act that typified his conflicts with Prime Minister Maliki. This is not a victory for Maliki, as the Iraqi army will only symbolically enter Basra and none of the JAM controlled districts. This is a strategy that worked very well for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and will work again as the JAM gains strength and once again convinces members of the Iraqi police to mutiny and either refuse to fight or abandon their posts to join the JAM."

As the experts poke the ashes, I think the emerging consensus is that Moqtada al-Sadr won more than he lost, because he and the government agreed to a cease-fire. That makes him 3 for 3 in taking on state powers (the U.S. in the previous two rounds, and now the Baghdad government). If nothing else, this guy is a survivor.

What puzzles me most is the role Iran played, especially in ending the fighting. There are lots of rumors that it brokered the cease-fire, but I have seen nothing definitive. If it did, that indicates that the Tehran government felt it had something to lose through the fighting. I have been told by U.S. officials that the Iranians were taken aback by intra-Shiite combat in Iraq last year around Karbala. I don't know why they would be surprised: It seems to me that one of the obstacles to major political movement in Iraq is that the Shiites still haven't sorted themselves out.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 2, 2008 7:42 PM
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