Iran wins the Battle of Basra
Iran and Moqtada al-Sadr strengthened after the Iraqi' government's failed military offensive
LE MONDE 2 April 2008 13:44
If there were the slightest doubt remaining regarding the substantial and confirmed influence of Iran in the affairs of its Iraqi neighbor, the ceasefire concluded on Sunday 30 March between the radical Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr and the three missi dominici representing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, also a Shi'ite, should have removed it. Because it was at Qom, the general headquarters of Iranian religious power, that the negotiations took place. According to a reliable source, it was member of the Iranian military (and not just any military man) who successfully brokered the ceasefire agreement: General Qassem Suleimani, head of the Pasdaran's al-Qods Brigades. Incidentally, at least two of the three special envoys dispatched by Mr. Maliki, Hadi al-Amari and Ali Adib, are dual Iraq-Iran nationals who lived for years in exile in Tehran. Mr. Adib is a member of the same political party as Mr. Maliki (Daawa) and Mr. Amari is the head of the formidable allied militia, the Badr Brigades, which dominates the new Iraqi Army's officer corps and which was created, financed and trained by Iran beginning in 1980.
During the week-long clashes which they approved and supported (killing 470 people and wounding thousands), the Americans constantly urged Tehran to "use its influence to stabilize the situation".
And it did. Although Washington and Tehran accuse each other of the worst misdeeds in Iraq, some political experts believe that the two powers at least agree on the necessity of preventing total chaos.
Occupied in the North by an offensive against Sunni rebels -members of al-Qaeda-, it appears that the Americans, who do not have a permanent military presence in Basrah, took Mr. Maliki at his word that his offensive would be a stroll in the park. As several Iraqi generals have said themselves, there was "surprise" at the combativeness of the Mahdi Army, the Sadrist militia, and its capacity to mobilize partisans in every big city of the Shi'ite south, including Baghdad.
Mr. Maliki did not achieve the aims that he had set out to accomplish. The "18 militias" counted by the French-Iraqi researcher Hosham Dawood are still running their lucrative smuggling operations in Basra.
No quarter of Basra under the domination of the Mahdi Army was wrested from their control. Hundreds of police and soldiers throughout the country refused to open fire on the militias and some joined them. For their first major operation under national command, and despite the 30,000 troops at their disposal, the new Iraqi Army and police trained by the Americans had to summon their Anglo-Saxon allies to the rescue as they advanced and then withdrew.
Theoretically valid until 8 April, the offer by Mr. Maliki to buy the heavy armaments used by the militias has had no takers.
Mr. Maliki, who incautiously declared that he would remain in Basrah "until victory is won" was forced to return to Baghdad with his credibility in worse shape than before the operation. The fact that he has qualified the operation as a success and has refused to ring down the curtain has not changed a thing. There will certainly be more inter-Shi'ite battles before the regional elections scheduled for October 1st. In the meantime, Mahmood Othman, a Kurdish MP who is close to the Iraqi President and very well-informed, observes: "Iran has demonstrated that it is Tehran and not Washington who controls events in Iraq. Iran hopes to weaken Maliki so that he has to accept its goals. In fact, Maliki was forced to scurry to Qom to negotiate."
President Bush, who had encouraged the initiative of his ally and declared that the operation was "an historic test for free Iraq", now has to kick himself.