President Bush and his aides emphasize that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deserves both credit and blame for acting on his own and precipitously sending a division-size force of Iraqi soldiers and police to Basra last month to attack Shiite militiamen. Maliki miscalculated, but he showed himself to be decisive and independent, goes the official version.
But the weight of the unacknowledged continuing American occupation broke through as soon as Maliki's offensive faltered. The prime minister's own chief of security, Salim Qassim, was shot dead by a sniper as he stepped out of Basra Palace to use his cellphone on March 28. Maliki, nearby, was in physical danger as the fighting raged, according to intelligence reports.
The CIA flashed word to Washington that the offensive - and Maliki's government - was about to collapse. That was when U.S. units were ordered into action to save Iraq's sovereign but defenseless prime minister, according to U.S. and Iraqi sources. (my emphasis)
Porter also suggests that Al Maliki's Iraq government could have planned the Basra offensive with the idea that Iran would negotiate a peace that the United States would feel required to respect. Wheels within wheels. But he notes that what is developing looks like a major military conflict between the US forces and Muqtada al-Sadr's JAM (Mahdi Army) is developing.
He further suggests that a new emphasis by the US military on showing some kind of apparent military success in the coming months may bring a de-emphasis on the alleged Iranian role in Iraq. He thinks the biggest reason for using that accusation in various forms up to this point has been to shift the blame for the failures in Iraq from the US and Maliki's government. But he warns in the interview that the public needs to be alert for a Cheney-Bush military attack on Iran.
The nomination of Gen. David Petraeus to be the new head of the Central Command not only ensures that he will be available to defend the George W. Bush administration's policies toward Iran and Iraq at least through the end of Bush's term and possibly even beyond.
It also gives Vice President Dick Cheney greater freedom of action to exploit the option of an air attack against Iran during the administration's final months. ...
Cheney aggressively solicited political support from Turkish leaders for a U.S. strike against Iranian nuclear facilities during his visit to Turkey last month, according to a source familiar with Cheney's meeting in Ankara.
Cheney was "very aggressive" in asking Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, as well as Turkey's chief of general staff Gen. Yasar Bukyukanit to get "on board" with such an attack, according to the source, who has access to reports from the Cheney visit. ...
After the meeting between Cheney and King Abdullah on the same trip, Saudi sources let it be known to the media that Abdullah had told Cheney that his government opposed any U.S. military strike against Iran. That suggested that Cheney had brought up the military option in Ryadh as well.
One of Cheney's main objectives on the trip appears to have been to get the message to Iran that the option of a strike against its nuclear facilities is still very much alive.
Here are two recent takes from Patrick Cockburn on the Iraqi situation:
In the latter piece, he explains that the escalating intra-Shi'a struggle, with the government parties on one side and Muqtada's forces on the other, could well dominate the Iraqi scene this year, as it has so far.
The largest government party is SIIC, formerly known as SCIRI - and to make it more complicated, Cockburn and some other use ISCI for the current initials. Al Maliki has been aligned with the Dawa Party, also part of the governing coalition but less influential in no small part because it lacks its own militia. The Badr Organization, aka, Badr Corps, is the paramilitary wing of SIIC and many Badr militia members are also part of the government security force. Al Maliki relies primarily on SIIC and the Badr Corps for his support. Cockburn:
The Shia community is splitting apart after five years of solidarity. It is a split not just between the government and the militias but between rich and poor. Maliki’s main supporters - his own Dawa party has a small base - are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and its Badr militia. ISCI draws its support primarily from the established Shia clergy, the merchants and the Shia middle class. But ever since ISCI was founded in Iran in 1982 at an early stage in the Iraq-Iran war the party has always lacked popular backing. It won an unsavory reputation for interrogating and torturing Iraqi prisoners: this did not stop it becoming a firm ally of the US occupation after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
He also address the role of Iran and the state of The Surge's "success" in the context of the Shi'a vs. Shi'a civil war:
The new conflict has another aspect: it is also a proxy struggle between the US and Iran. This has been going on ever since the American invasion. But, for all Washington’s attempts to prove otherwise, the Sunni insurgency was primarily supported by the Sunni Arab states to the west of Iraq. The Sadrists have traditionally been highly suspicious of the Iranians. From the beginning, Muqtada was the only Shia leader who has always opposed the US occupation. His militiamen fought two furious battles with US Marines for the Shia holy city of Najaf in April and August 2004. They suffered heavy casualties, but survived; and Muqtada became politically stronger. In public he said he was shifting from military to political resistance. But, in confronting the US, he is forced to look to Iranian political and military support. 'The Iranians cannot afford to see Muqtada eliminated or seriously weakened,' says Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi political scientist. In Iran's battle with the US for influence over the Iraqi Shia, Muqtada plays too important a role for Iran to see him crushed.
Confrontation, and even war, with Iran is politically easier to sell in the US than support for the continuing war inside Iraq. The Democratic Party may want to withdraw troops from Iraq but its leaders try to outdo each other in condemning Iran. General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, has been blaming Iran as the hidden hand behind the latest fighting in Baghdad and Basra. He [did] the same when he appeared before Congress on April 8 to give evidence about why, over the last few months, Iraq has become more and not less violent. He had a lot of explaining to do. With US television showing armed men in the streets, burned-out vehicles and smoke rising over Baghdad and Basra, his claims about the success of the 'surge' looked much less convincing than they did at the end of last year.Petraeus says that the number of American soldiers in Iraq should not be reduced below the level they were at before the surge started - which makes his claims of military success look dubious. The 3.2 million Iraqis, one in nine of the population, who fled to Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in Iraq, have not been coming home because they think it is too dangerous for them to do so; they are right. (my emphasis)
Iran's role in Iraq is real. In the larger strategic picture, that has been the main result of the Iraq War: to strenthen Iran's influence in the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular.
But Iran's influence isn't as simple as SIIC and Dawa, pro-Iran; Muqtada, anti-Iran. Remember that stereotypically complex and devious Persian diplomacy. Iran is most closely tied to the government parties. But that doesn't mean that those parties are its puppets, or that Iran would unconditionally back them in conflicts with Muqtada.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has out a paper that talks about the complexities of the intra-Shi'a politics in Iran, including a discussion of the recent Maliki offensive in Basra, The Shi'ite Gamble: Rolling the Dice for Iraq's Future 04/21/08. The only odd thing I noticed in it was this assessment of the military outcome in the Basra offensive:
Again, there is a heavy layer of fog over the outcome. It is important to note, however, that the Sadrists [Muqtada's forces] did not win any previous clashes with MNF-I, have not won significant clashes in this round of fighting, seem to have lost in Basra, and have not had any overt Iranian encouragement and support. Iraqi forces—for all their very real and all too obvious weaknesses—are now much stronger and are slowly becoming more effective.
Since Muqtada's goal for his JAM militia was to survive and not be disarmed, and since after Iran brokered a cease-fire deal JAM survived and was not disarmed, this is an odd comment. Compare that conclusion to the description in the latter Patrick Cockburn article. It's possible that Cordesman was talking in purely conventional military terms, i.e., Muqtada didn't capture large numbers of government troops and make them surrender, but otherwise it doesn't make much sense.
Cockburn talks about that deal and what the Basra offensive meant to the US administration, and gives another illustration of how hard the Maverick has to work to keep his Straight Talk straight:
As the Iraqi army began to fail the Americans moved quickly to prop it up. Air controllers to marshal air strikes were sent to Iraqi army units. A team of senior American advisers was sent to Basra. This may explain why Muqtada agreed to a ceasefire. The Mehdi Army had already shown it could fight off the Iraqi army and police, but the Americans might be a different matter. Even so, the short war between Muqtada and the government was revealing as to who really holds power in Iraq. A delegation of Shia leaders went to Iran. They talked to Muqtada in the holy city of Qom, and to General Qassem Sulaymani, the head of the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who oversees Iranian involvement in Iraq. He has long been an American bête noir and last year US special forces tried to kidnap him during an official visit to the Kurdish president. Maliki seems to have been told of the agreement only after it was reached, but its terms were that the Mehdi Army would not give up its arms, the government offensive would stop and militia members would no longer be arrested without warrants. The Americans, who normally react furiously to any sign of Iranian interference in Iraq, said nothing about the fact that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were negotiating peace terms between the government and its enemies.
The Americans said nothing because the abortive attack on Basra was, for them, a nightmare. The claim that the surge was the first step in restoring peace to Iraq was exposed as a myth. American military casualties might be down -- but some two thousand Iraqis were killed in March. American politicians ran for cover. While I was in Baghdad in March, Senator John McCain visited, at the same time as Vice-President Dick Cheney. Both expressed confidence that security was improving. McCain happily told CNN that Muqtada’s 'influence has been on the wane for a long time'. Three weeks later, McCain was denying he had ever said such a thing; what he had said, he insisted, was that ‘he was still a major player and his influence is going to have to be reduced and gradually eliminated.’ Given that Muqtada is the most powerful Shia leader, and that his militiamen had just shown they could defeat the Iraqi army, this would mean that McCain, if elected president, would fight a war with Iraq’s 17 million Shia. (my emphasis)