Saturday, April 5, 2008

Basrah Recap

I stopped following the 'mainstream' news out of Basrah once things calmed down over here, so I hadn't realized that the press has been painting the recent skirmishes as a strategic defeat. I was a bit stunned to hear it actually, and happy to see David Frum's excellent rebuttal to the idea that the battle of Basrah was a step back. Here, on the ground, I never would have believed that story could have been sold in the first place. Here, everyone's wishing they could go to Basrah, to consolidate and exploit the success, the success of the Iraqi operation. Everyone's congratulating the Iraqi Security Forces, marveling at their performance, so much better than the somewhat dismal expectations. Jaysh al-Mahdi are wounded, scattered, and thoroughly disenheartened. This was supposed to be JAM's great last stand, and it fizzled in a heartbreakingly undramatic fashion.

And really, what exactly would it have taken for this to be called a victory by those determined to see defeat? The Shatt-al-Arab flowing red with the blood of JAM and their supporters? Any victory decisive enough to be named a victory would have been decried as an atrocity. The biggest stumbling block to understanding this part of Iraq is identifying JAM and its loosely associated militias solely as a religio-political movement, when their day-to-day activities are far more concerned with good old Mammon. Basrah is (and has forever been) a smugglers' den. Will there continue to be well-armed, politically connected gangs operating organized crime rings in the Basrah area for generations? Probably. They've been there for centuries. That doesn't mean there's no road forward; Italy manages, after all.


Shane said...

That's why I'm glad you're blogging. I only read one op-ed/blog post painting this battle as a victory for Maliki, versus nearly a dozen characterizing it as evidence of how Iraq is already strategically lost. And honestly I trust your judgment and knowledge on Iraq issues far more than most commentators in the media.

Anyway, for a left-of-center guy like me, who still considers the Iraq war to be a strategic debacle in the grand scheme of things, it's good to hear good news out of Iraq.

My issue of course is that in this fight, it seems like we arbitrarily backed one Shiite group under some Iranian influence over another Shiite group under some Iranian influence. Am I characterizing this wrong?

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

No, I'd say you're just about right, though I'd take out the "arbitrarily". The Shia power groups basically come in various religious/political/military flavors, but pretty much fell into SCIRI/Da'wa Party/Badr Corps vs. the Sadrist Movement/OMS/JAM, which barely even tries to pretend its political and military wings are separate. I think the difference, as far as which dog to pick in the fight, came down to which group appeared more willing to accept our backing, as well as which group was more deeply enmeshed with Iran. SCIRI certainly has Iranian roots and ideological connections, and the Badr Corps fought for Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, but they haven't been getting the sort of funding, weaponry, and training from Iran that JAM currently does, which is probably why they were happy to be absorbed into the ISF. And SCIRI's spiritual leader, the Ayatollah al-Sistani, was always far more agreeable to the US presence, and far more reasonable in general than al-Sadr, who was facing a crisis of legitimacy and so defined himself in opposition to us. Al-Maliki, then, is the classic political opportunist that the Sadrists lacked to tie it all together.