Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and George W. Bush, two of Maverick McCain's running mates
The Party line from the Republicans is that the current wave of fighting in Iraq is a sign of progress and the success of The Surge (of course!). Because, they say, this was undertaken by the Iraqi government with Iraqi security forces in the lead.
I'm guessing - and this is a guess based on the circumstances and personalities involved - that Dark Lord Cheney on his recent visit to Iraq directed Prime Minister al-Maliki to undertake this operation in Basra. And, like pretty much everything else Cheney takes the lead on, it became a fiasco. The administration's thinking was probably that the Iraq forces would go in and shoot up a few neighborhoods in Basra, claim they had killed a bunch of "terrorists" and "outlaws" and our Savior-General Petraeus could use this next week in his visit to Washington as evidence of continuing spectacular success.
As always, the Savior-General, Maverick McCain and the Cheney-Bush administration will claim this as a success anyway. But in actuality, Muqtada al-Sadr's JAM (Mahdi Army) fought back quite successfully, adopting a defensive strategy incorporating lessons from Hizbollah's successful resistance to the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006. Fighting spread quickly from Basra to Baghdad, Kut, Karbala, and Diyala and Al-Anbar provinces. The Green Zone where the Iraqi government and the American imperial embassy are located has been under daily mortar and rocket attack.
There was a telltale fact about the first days of the Iraqi government assault on Basra that our lazy media for the most part seemed to have completely missed. Which was that from the start, the air support for the operation was provided by the US. This is a warning sign that even if the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), which include police and paramilitary forces as well as regular army, had held up well, they are operating under methods that require continued American air support. Of course, American advisers were involved. And, in another guess, I quite sure we'll find out that the American advisory role was always larger than the early official claims suggested.
But the ISF didn't hold up very well. The police especially defected in large numbers to the JAM, as did many soldiers. El Mundo is reporting at about 10:00 US West Coast time that Muqtada ("Mookie" is the popular nickname for him among US troops) has ordered another cease fire: Al Sadr: 'Cualquiera que porte armas y apunte al Gobierno no será de los nuestros' 30/03/2008. It's not clear at this point from this report whether this represents another stand-down by JAM or a propaganda attempt to put the blame for continued violence on the Maliki government and the US.
El Mundo's report says that fighting in Baghdad, including attack on the Green Zone, is continuing. Many hundreds are reported injured and short of medical care. This is an ugly reality of this war. The US has been attacking urban neighborhoods in Badhdad's Sadr City from the air. While legitimate in the sense that JAM is attacking the US forces and the ISF from there, it still winds up with the US blasting a lot of civilian noncombatants.
Something like two-thirds of Iraq's oil exports pass through Basra. Someone, presumably JAM, successfully sabotaged one of the oil pipelines last week. Shutting down two-thirds of the oil exports would be a heavy blow for Maliki's Green Zone government.
Meanwhile, the government is saying they will continue the offensive against JAM. (Actually, he says it's not against JAM but against "criminals".) On Saturday, it says, JAM forces captured a third police station in Basra, in the Jamhuriya neighborhood.
El Mundo quotes Azzaman, which it calls the "principal" newspaper in Baghdad, as saying that in the last five years the Iraqis have paid a terrible price for the serious errors, first of the foreign occupiers, and then from the Iraqis that they themselves installed to run the country. Iraq has become a nation of armies and militias, it said, every one of them with a different agenda. Even the American today have their own militia, Azzaman said, although it's not entirely clear what that means (ISF? The US official forces? Mercenaries, aka, "security contractors"?) It also said that the Americans and their Iraqi lackeys are equally responsible for the current situation. (I haven't used quotation marks here, although I tried to render it from the Spanish directly, because presumably the original was in Arabic. A lot can be lost in two translations.)
The United States confirmed on Sunday that U.S. special forces units were operating alongside Iraqi government troops in Basra, where the government is battling militants loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
A U.S. military statement described a joint raid by Iraqi and U.S. special forces units which killed 22 suspected militants, including "16 criminal fighters" strafed in an air strike on three houses.
The raid showed U.S. forces are being drawn deeper into the Iraqi-led crackdown, launched on Tuesday by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Basra, Iraq's second-biggest city.
The Iraqi special forces team killed four suspected militants in a house and two on a roof before calling in the air strike, the statement said.
Again, even the most discriminating attacks in a populated urban area are going to kill some noncombatants. But air strikes vastly increase the incidence of this occurring. This report quotes the bland press release saying three houses were hit, killing "22 suspected militants". What, did the pilots see them through the windows carrying AK-47s and chanting "Death to Al-Maliki"? One can only guess what distinguishes "militants" and "criminal fighters".
Reuters also suggests that "Mookie's Boys" are now considered the primary enemy in Iraq: "The fighting has established a new main adversary for U.S. forces, whose main military effort for the past year had been against Sunni Arab groups such as al Qaeda."
Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr issued the statement on the sixth day of a government offensive that had been intended to dislodge his supporters from their strongholds in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, but instead turned into a pitched battle in Baghdad and elsewhere in which the Mahdi Army proved a match for the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. (my emphasis)
Muqtada conditioned his unilateral cease-fire on the ISF ending their attacks on JAM and their arrests of JAM supporters, as well as on the release of JAM prisoners now in custody:
The statement would allow Sadr to claim the role of peacemaker, though its practical impact was unclear. A Mahdi Army commander in Basra said his men would continue to defend themselves in the face of government attacks.
“We will stay in our positions because the government didn’t stop the raids and the attacks against the Mahdi Army and their areas,” Abu Muamal said. “We are waiting for clear orders from our command and we will not withdraw until the situation is clarified.”
Here's a Reuters video on Iraqi news. I still can't get the Reuters embed code to work here.
For once, George Bush's open-faced incomprehension - at Nouri al-Maliki's decision to set off a civil war inside Iraq's Shia community - seems entirely appropriate. When the American President admitted he did not know why the Iraqi Prime Minister had launched an offensive in Basra saying, 'I'm not exactly sure what triggered the Prime Minister's response', he was not alone. (my emphasis)
Maybe Dick Cheney forgot to tell him.
British forces are also engaging in direct fighting;
Iraqi officials said at least 220 people had been killed in southern Iraq and 550 injured since clashes started last Monday. In Baghdad, the health directorate said the number raised to 90 killed and 480 injured in clashes and by US air strikes in Sadr City. The district's two hospitals, serving its two million people, are overflowing and understaffed.
Meanwhile, in Basra, British troops have been supporting the Iraqi troops who have been struggling to take ground against the Iranian-backed militia. American jets have been in action supporting the Iraqi army and there is even talk of US troops being sent south into what has been a British-run zone. The ceasefire with al-Sadr has been an essential part of the success of US general David Petraeus's 'surge' - the deployment of an extra 28,000 American troops into Baghdad and nearby cities. Assured of quiet on the Shi'ite front, US forces have been free to concentrate on battling al Qaeda and Ba'athist insurgents among the Sunni community. (my emphasis)
We need to remember that if JAM takes effective control of Basra and southern Iraq, American supply lines from Kuwait become far more vulnerable than they have been.
A US warplane strafed a house in Basra killing eight civilians, including two women and a child, Iraqi police said yesterday. The house was in the city's Hananiyah district, which is a stronghold of the Mehdi Army militia of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. ...
Five days after the start of the offensive ordered by the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, US military intelligence says that the Iraqi army holds less than a quarter of Basra, which has a population of two million. In east Baghdad, meanwhile, five hospitals have received 133 bodies and 647 wounded since the start of the fighting.
Mr Maliki's confident prediction that he would crush the Mehdi Army is turning out to be a dangerous gamble that is fast eroding his authority. It is damaging to President Bush, who had claimed the US "surge" had brought about a turning point in America's five-year-old war to pacify Iraq. Mr Bush had praised the offensive as showing that the Iraqi security forces, trained and supported by the US, could at last stand and fight on their own. So far, the gun battles in Baghdad and the Shia south of Iraq are providing evidence that exactly the opposite is true.
Mr Sadr told al-Jazeera TV yesterday that Arab leaders meeting in Damascus should support the "resistance" to US occupation. The leader of the most powerful political movement in Iraq draws his support from the Shia poor, while his rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), is supported by Shia clerics, merchants and property owners. The Sadrists-SIIC rivalry is behind the timing of Mr Maliki's Basra assault. Though he said it was aimed at all militias and illegal armed movements, the attack has only been against the Mehdi Army and not against the Fadhila party and the SIIC, which both control parts of the city. The SIIC is now the main support behind Mr Maliki. ...
If US and British forces engage in direct military action on a wide scale with the Sadrist militia, then Mr Sadr could call for a general uprising, which would engulf all of Shia Iraq in war. The Mehdi Army already controls half of Baghdad. ...
Mr Maliki has said there will be "no retreat" and has boxed himself into a corner by ruling out compromise. Critics of US policy will attack the official picture of progress in Iraq as a mirage. Mr Sadr and the Mehdi Army could emerge from the crisis stronger than before. (my emphasis)
Cockburn has a new book being officially released in the US Tuesday, a biography of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Maliki agreed to the provincial elections, it appears, in exchange for Bush's and Petraeus' permission to launch a crushing offensive against the Sadr forces who have come to power on the streets of Basra in the wake of Britain's withdrawal. Maliki and his US sponsors call them "criminal gangs", but it is clear that Maliki's intent is to weaken or destroy the Sadr forces before the [October] election.
The four-day offensive has failed so far, provoking widespread violence from Basra to Mahmudia, Hilla, Diwaniya, Kut and the streets of Baghdad. Hundreds have been killed or wounded. Maliki's forces are being exposed as unable to fight without US airpower bombarding positions as small as those for mortar crews. The prospect of US or British intervention in Basra grows by the hour. Tens of thousands of Shi'a are protesting on the streets of Sadr City.
So much for the surge. The US is now in panic mode, trying to ensure the survival of its unpopular client regime in Baghdad. (my emphasis)
Apollo the far-shooter
That last observation is an important one to understand. Things have gone seriously bad for the American position in Iraq during the last week. The fact that the American Establishment press is mostly snoozing through the crisis so far doesn't change the seriousness of it. Snoozing on important facts is now the standard operating procedure for our "press corps".
By Apollo the far-shooter, what a mess Cheney and Bush and their boy Rummy have created there!