ALMOST FROM THE MOMENT IT began on March 25, the inside-the-Beltway Conventional Wisdom about the Iraqi Army's offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr's "Jaysh al Mahdi" militia and other, more criminal elements in the city of Basra--the second-largest city in Iraq and whose port is Iraq's lifeline to the international economy--was that it was a half-baked enterprise and soon a fully-baked disaster. But the latest news from Iraq strongly suggests that is, once again, the narrative of defeat that is half-baked. Over the weekend, the Iraqi Army asserted control over the Basra neighborhoods that had been Sadrist "strongholds" (though, as in the past, the pattern of JAM behavior is flight-not-fight when its losses begin to mount) and continued to apply strong pressure on Sadr City, the main JAM redoubt in Baghdad.
But, before the reality check, let's indulge in a retrospective of the failure fantasies of recent weeks. "I hope we don't hear any glorification of what happened in Basra," House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi warned Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker before they delivered their Iraq update testimony to Congress on April 9. Pelosi was parroting the left's rush to judgment that the Iraqi operation was a conclusive failure and that Muqtada al Sadr and Iran were the big winners. Basra was an unpleasant "lesson" for the Maliki government, wrote Robert Dreyfuss on March 31 in the Nation; the prime minister personally "lost face" and the initial cease-fire "worked out in Qom, Iran and mediated by Tehran," was "doubly embarrassing." But it was worse for the United States and an "utter humiliation" for President Bush.
The allegedly Mainstream Media had likewise already picked up on the left's talking points: USA Today editorialized on April 1 that the Basra offensive "weakened Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki . . . strengthened the hand of Muqtada al-Sadr" and "in another piece of bad news, all this helped Iran." Trudy Rubin's April 6 "Worldview" column in the Philadelphia Inquirer trumpeted that the "Basra fiasco showed Iran's power in Iraq." Rubin followed Dreyfuss's line that it was the commander of the Iranian Quds force who "negotiated" the ceasefire--because, as Iranian foreign minister Manucher Mottaki told her as the Davos World Economic Forum (where Important People gather to certify what will and will not be Conventional Wisdom), "The United States and Iran have common interests in avoiding total chaos in Iraq." But the strongest celebration of Sadr's "victory" fell to Time magazine's Charles Crain; the firebrand cleric "finds himself in a perfect position," he wrote April 1. "[J]ust when it appeared he might be marginalized again, the Iraqi government has burnished Sadr's image as a leader who defies the United States and an Iraqi government that refuses to accept U.S. troops."
The British press has also been hard at work trumpeting the alleged defeat, and their interest is sparked all the more because of the proximity of British forces in the south of Iraq--indeed, the British army long ago withdrew from the streets of Basra. The Guardian's Jonathan Steele concluded on April 4 that the "assault on Basra was particularly foolish." Muqtada al Sadr "comes out of the crisis strengthened. His militiamen gave no ground." According to Steele, Sadr enjoys "widespread popular support"--not just among a portion of the Shiite poor--"because of his nationalist credentials." One wonders what the Anbari shieks or Kurdish faction leaders would agree. Sean Rayment, the London Daily Telegraph defense correspondent, wrote on April 21--quoting a host of British officers--that the battle to retake Basra was a "complete disaster. . . . The net effect of all this is that the British Army will be forced to remain here"--does he mean at their base outside Basra?---"for many months longer."
And now for something completely different; the reality check in the form of a summary of recent news from Basra and Baghdad:
* On April 20, "Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia in Basra on Saturday," according to James Glanz and Alissa Rubin's account in the New York Times. Notably, this "Iraqi government's monthlong military operation against the [Jaysh al Mahdi] fighters" was given a thumb's-up by Iran's ambassador to Iraq. Taking a term from Prime Minister Maliki, Hassan Kazemi Qumi described the Sadrist militias in Basra as "outlaws."
* On April 19, Reuters reported that the Hayaniya district in Basra was taken by Iraqi troops, "backed by a thunderous bombardment by U.S. warplanes and British artillery." An Iraqi interiror ministry spokesman told the news service, "Out troops deployed in all the parts of the district and controlled it without much resistance. Now we are working on house-to-house checking. We have made many arrests."
* Fighting continued in the Sadr city section of Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have been pursuing elements of the Mahdi militia and Iranian-backed "special groups," some dozens of whom have been captured and killed. Although Sadr, still thought to be in Iran, threatened a "third uprising," issuing a "last direct warning and speech to the Iraqi government to refrain and take the path of peace and abandon violence against its people. If the government does not refrain and leash the militias that have penetrated it, we will announce an open war until liberation." Sounding less like a firebrand speaking from a perfect position, the cleric lamented, "This government has forgotten that we are their brothers and were part of them." Et tu, Nuri?
* The Iranian ambassador does not appreciate the assaults on Sadr City; unlike the Basra offensive--which targeted some groups less responsive to Iranian influence--the Baghdad campaign "would aggravate the situation and make things worse" from the Iranian perspective.
While it's very difficult to tell who's up and who's down in Baghdad on a day-to-day basis, what seems increasingly clear is that the Shia community, like the Sunni community before it, is reaching a point where it is fracturing and beginning to reject those who have staked themselves--and whose future depends--on stoking sectarian extremism.
There's even a struggle in the Sadrist movement. On April 12, Riyadh Noori, a senior aide and in-law of Sadr and a suspect in the 2003 killing of Abdel Majid Khoei, a respected cleric and rival of Sadr's, was gunned down in Najaf. It remains unclear who killed Noori, but Sheik Fatih Khashic Ghitaa, director of the Al Thaqalayn Center for Strategic Studies, probably got it right when he told the Los Angeles Times, "It's going to be a fight among the Sadrist people themselves because three or four parts of the Mahdi Army are splintering."
This moment of flux is also a moment of tremendous opportunity for the United States and its Iraqi allies, and not least of all Prime Minister Maliki, once almost universally reviled (and still reviled in the western press) as a weakling unlikely to serve out his term. And while the halting successes in Basra and Baghdad reveal some of the underlying problems of the Iraqi Army and other security forces, Maliki has persevered and his willingness to take a risk may be rewarded--it is Maliki, not Sadr or his Iranian backers, who has emerged stronger in the past weeks.
Over the next six months it's reasonable to hope--though we've all heard this before--that, at last, a new Iraq will emerge: the offensive against al Qaeda remnants continues in the north of Iraq, the Sadrists have lost momentum and cohesion, and upcoming elections improve the prospects for bringing to power a newly responsive central government. Taken together, these trends measure a kind of Iraqi surge of the sort that was envisioned by the American surge of the past year.