This is not good at all:
"U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in the vast Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, and military officials said Friday that U.S. aircraft bombed militant positions in the southern city of Basra, as the American role in a campaign against party-backed militias appeared to expand. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the Sadr City fighting, as U.S. troops took the lead.
Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of U.S. weapons, along with the Mahdi Army's AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.
The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, saying death squads, criminal gangs and rogue militias were the targets. The Mahdi Army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite rival of Maliki, appeared to have taken the brunt of the attacks; fighting spread to many southern cities and parts of Baghdad."
And this just makes it worse:
"Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials. With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.
In Basra, three rival Shiite groups have been trying to position themselves, sometimes through force of arms, to dominate recently approved provincial elections.
The U.S. officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record, said that they believe Iran has provided assistance in the past to all three groups: the Mahdi Army; the Badr Organization of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Iraq's largest Shiite party; and forces loyal to the Fadhila Party, which holds the Basra governor's seat. But the officials see the current conflict as a purely internal Iraqi dispute.
Some officials have concluded that Maliki himself is firing "the first salvo in upcoming elections," the administration official said.
"His dog in that fight is that he is basically allied with the Badr Corps" against forces loyal to Sadr, the official said. "It's not a pretty picture.""
"Abu Iman barely flinched when the Iraqi Government ordered his unit of special police to move against al-Mahdi Army fighters in Basra.
His response, while swift, was not what British and US military trainers who have spent the past five years schooling the Iraqi security forces would have hoped for. He and 15 of his comrades took off their uniforms, kept their government-issued rifles and went over to the other side without a second thought."
So: Maliki launched an assault on the Mahdi Army without telling us. [UPDATE: Eric Martin says: don't take the claim that we weren't told at face value. He's right. END UPDATE] We're not sure why he did this, but it appears to be about internal Iraqi politics. And yet, for some reason, our forces are heavily involved, and possibly taking the lead.
More below the fold.
(1) What's going on? The short answer is: no one really seems to know. What is clear, however, is that this is a fight between several Shi'a factions in Iraq, all of which have been supported to varying degrees by Iran. Good analyses: Anthony Cordesman:
"Much of the current coverage of the fighting in the south assumes that Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr militia are the "spoilers," or bad guys, and that the government forces are the legitimate side and bringing order. This can be a dangerous oversimplification. There is no question that many elements of the JAM have been guilty of sectarian cleansing, and that the Sadr movement in general is hostile to the US and is seeking to enhance Muqtada al-Sadr's political power. There is also no doubt that the extreme rogue elements in the JAM have continued acts of violence in spite of the ceasefire, and that some have ties to Iran. No one should romanticize the Sadr movement, understate the risks it presents, or ignore the actions of the extreme elements of the JAM.
But no one should romanticize Maliki, Al Dawa, or the Hakim faction/ISCI. The current fighting is as much a power struggle for control of the south, and the Shi'ite parts of Baghdad and the rest of the country, as an effort to establish central government authority and legitimate rule. (...)
Is the end result going to be good or bad? It is very difficult to tell. If the JAM and Sadr turn on the US, or if the current ISCI/Dawa power grab fails, then Shi'ite on Shi'ite violence could become far more severe. It is also far from clear that if the two religious-exile parties win, this is going to serve the cause of political accommodation or legitimate local and provincial government."
"It's not a case of good vs. evil. It's just another crevice in the widening earthquake called Iraq."
Eric Martin, Abu Aardvark, and Noah Schachtman are all worth reading. Juan Cole has a good summary of what's happening, with his own analysis and translations from the Arabic press; Missing Links is also good. Josh Marshall asks a good question: "I wonder myself if this isn't also an effort of Maliki (now allied with what used to be SCIRI) to crush the Sadrists while he still has the power of the US military behind him." Raider Vissar, who knows a whole lot about Basra, has some very good questions about what's going on, and in particular about why this is happening now, and against Sadr in particular. Cernig and Fester at NewsHoggers float the unpleasant possibility that drawing us into an internal Iraqi struggle was part of the point.
(2) The WSJ gets part of the bigger picture right:
"U.S. and Iraqi officials have credited Iraq's recent security gains to three distinct but related trends: the "surge" of 30,000 additional U.S. combat forces, the willingness of Sunni tribal fighters to turn against religious extremists, and a cease-fire by firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
But the surge troops have begun leaving Iraq and will be back in the U.S. by July. Many of the Sunni fighters -- known as "concerned local citizens, or CLCs, in military parlance -- are threatening to resume attacking Iraqi targets if they aren't given government jobs. And Mr. Sadr's militants have been battling Iraqi forces in recent days and talking darkly about escalating the violence if no armistice is reached.
"If the two wheels fall off -- the CLCs turn back into insurgents and the Sadr cease-fire starts to fray -- you're likely to see a huge uptick in the violence," said Colin Kahl, a security-studies professor at Georgetown University. "All three of the factors holding down the violence are unwinding at the same time, which is a pretty big deal.""
(3) Oil: I should probably mention this:
"In another indication that parts of the south were slipping from the government’s hands, a major oil pipeline near Basra was struck with a bomb around 10 a.m. on Friday, igniting a huge fire, said Sameer al-Magsosi, a spokesman for the Southern Oil Company."
(4) Abu Muqawama, an Iraq vet, writes:
"If Abu Muqawama was leading one of those U.S. units into Sadr City past a bunch of Iraqi Army soldiers hanging out on the outskirts, he would not be happy. He would be asking himself a) why is he the one establishing the authority of the Iraqi state and not the Iraqi Army and b) why is he duking it out with a militia with broad popular support so that another Iran-backed political party can win a bigger share of the vote in the fall?
Now Iraqi Army units are calling for U.S. and UK military units to lend direct support in Basra as well.
In Lebanon, in September 1983, the U.S. lent direct support to what it assumed was a national institution, the Lebanese Army, in the battle at Souk el-Gharb. By doing so, it became, in the eyes of the rest of the Lebanese population, just another militia. The U.S. history in Iraq is more complicated, obviously, but what's happening now is the U.S. is throwing our lot in with ISCI in the upcoming elections. And all Abu Muqawama is saying is, there better be a whole lot of quid pro quo going on as well."
Yep. We should not be in the middle of this one, let alone taking the lead. Doing so has enormous costs. But:
(5) This is completely unsurprising. When people talk about why we need to stay in Iraq, they often say that if we left, there would be a horrific civil war. I agree, though I've always thought that to even begin to justify staying in Iraq, we need to have some reason to think that we are preventing that civil war, not just postponing it. But recent developments should make it clear that while we are undoubtedly helping to keep a lid on things, it's not at all impossible that a civil war could break out while we're there.
If it does, we will of course come under a lot of pressure to get involved. Consider this article from Reuters, whose headline reads: "Britain sits on sidelines as Iraq's Basra burns". That's how it looks when a country with troops in theater decides not to intervene in a struggle between Iraqi factions. Besides, as Spencer Ackerman says:
"As long as Maliki is in the prime minister's chair, and as long as we proclaim the Iraqi government he leads to be legitimate, Maliki effectively holds us hostage. "I need to go after Sadr," Maliki says. "The situation is unacceptable! In Basra, he threatens to take control of the ports, and in Baghdad, he's throwing my men out of their checkpoints. Would you allow the Bloods or the Crips to take over half of Los Angeles?" And as soon as he says that, we're trapped. It simply is not tenable for Petraeus to refuse a request for security assistance from the Prime Minister to deal with a radical militia."
Supporting the Iraqi Army would be a lot more palatable if it were, in fact, a genuinely national army, deployed in the interests of the nation as a whole. But it's being used as Maliki's militia, to eliminate his political opponents. And we're getting dragged in there with it. That is not at all OK.
When we consider the costs of staying in Iraq, we have to consider this as well.
(6) Training: The defection of some Iraqi army and police forces points up a fundamental problem with our project of training them. As I wrote back in 2005 (aargh):
"It is not at all obvious that training the Iraqi army will make it an effective army of the Iraqi government. Training the Iraqi army will increase its technical proficiency. But it will not make the Iraqi army loyal to the Iraqi government. If the army is to provide the Iraqi government with the means to enforce its will over militias and sectarian groups, its soldiers must be loyal to the government and not to those groups. Many of them are not, and all the training in the world will not solve this problem."
(7) Random detail I did not want to know: IraqSlogger reports (sub. req.; thank you for letting me read you, IraqSlogger!) that the gunmen who kidnapped the official spokesman for the Baghdad Security Plan yesterday were dressed in Interior Ministry uniforms, and arrived in official vehicles which are popularly known as 'Monicas'. Why?
"Slogger sources confirm that the "Monica" nickname for the official vehicles is widely known among Baghdadis, and is commonly understood as an uncouth reference to Monica Lewinsky, the Clinton White House intern who gained notoriety in a well-known sex scandal and congressional investigation.
The term crudely likens the profile of the vehicles, which grow larger at the stern, to the former intern's physique at the time of the widely publicized events that dogged President Bill Clinton's second term in the late 1990s."
(8): Here's President Bush's take:
"Prime Minister Maliki's bold decision -- and it was a bold decision -- to go after the illegal groups in Basra shows his leadership, and his commitment to enforce the law in an even-handed manner. It also shows the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge. Iraqi forces planned this operation and they deployed substantial extra forces for it. They're leading the operation. Prime Minister Maliki has traveled to Basra to oversee it firsthand.
This offensive builds on the security gains of the surge, and demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is committed to protecting them."
Progress. Wow. Imagine what failure would be like.
(9) We are so screwed.