The Magazine

What Happened in Basra

The Maliki-Sadr showdown.

Apr 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 29 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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The ability of the Sadrists and Iranian-controlled Special Groups to plunge Iraq into chaos has been exaggerated. To the extent that they have just tried to do that, they failed completely. In 2004, Sadr threw Baghdad and Karbala into full-scale combat that lasted for weeks and required the deployment of thousands of American soldiers to reestablish control. The most recent showing was a pale shadow of 2004.

Some are arguing that recent events demonstrate the power of the Special Groups. They have certainly been engaged in an offensive against ISF and coalition forces for the past several months--to which the ISF has vigorously responded. When it came to uprisings in the Shia heartland, the ISF prevailed handily. Special Groups and JAM will no doubt reconstitute and try again, and they may do better next time--it would be a grave mistake to underestimate them--but the recent operation has shown only their limitations.

Sadr was in Iran during the entire operation, gave his statements from Qom, made no attempt to return to Iraq to lead his fighters as he had as recently as last year, and appeared both weak and under Iran's thumb. Sadrist news outlets argue that he has benefited from this, but other Iraqi media disagree, and the case is hard to make if you're not on the Sadrist payroll.

Reports suggest that the ISF seized and is holding the port of Basra. If so, this would actually be quite a significant gain, since the port was in the hands of criminal gangs and its revenues had been flowing into militia coffers.

Maliki has finally reached out to Shia tribes and accepted the establishment of Sons of Iraq groups--the auxiliary police forces providing security in many Sunni areas--in Shia areas. These would be similar to the awakening movements in Sunni areas and open the possibility of expanding the range of Shia politics and drawing larger numbers of Shia into active participation in the establishment and maintenance of their own security.

The most important fact about the recent operations has escaped most observers, however. The government of Iraq, that group of "Persian ex-pats" as many Iraqis and some Americans call them, went to war against the illegal Shia militias which are thoroughly infiltrated, supported, advised, trained, and led by Iran and its agents. When it ran into trouble, the government called for American support and then began to engage with its own local tribesmen, who eagerly volunteered to support the fight against the foreigners.

Iraq has already demonstrated that it is by far the most serious and determined ally the United States has in the war against al Qaeda by deploying more forces and taking more casualties in that struggle than any other state. After several years in which Americans feared that the Shia government would attempt to triangulate between Iran and the United States without taking sides, the Iraqi leadership has made its choice clear. It chose America. What will we choose?

Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Iraq: The Way Ahead," the Iraq Planning Group's phase IV report. Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War. Her reports and analysis of the Iraq war are available at