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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On March 24, 2008, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) under Lieutenant General Mohan al-Fireji launched a series of attacks against illegal Shia militias and criminal elements in the city of Basra.

The attack appears to have resulted from an impulsive order by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who had gone down to Basra to see the preparations for a more deliberate operation then being planned. The militias, which included elements of the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) nominally under the control of Moktada al-Sadr as well as the Special Groups--secret cells organized by the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps--were well dug-in and fought back.

Iraqi forces in Basra, supported by American advisers and air support, pressed the attack and sent reinforcements. Special Groups and elements of JAM attacked the ISF throughout Shia Iraq in what appears to have been an attempt to ignite widespread fighting in Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Hilla, Kut, Nasiriya, and Diwaniya. Iraqi forces repulsed these attacks with very little assistance in the area between Baghdad and Basra, and coalition forces worked closely with the ISF to contain the violence in Baghdad.

On March 30, Sadr ordered his fighters to stand down, following a meeting between Iraqi officials and the commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani. Sadr's order, accompanied by a set of demands--which Maliki has denied agreeing to--led to a significant reduction in the resistance of JAM members, but has not halted ISF operations in Baghdad and Basra.

These are the facts of the case established so far. There has been much speculation about what happened in Basra itself: about possible deals between Maliki and Sadr, about the benefits Sadr or Maliki might have received from this encounter, and about Maliki's motivations. Because British forces, nominally responsible for the area in which Basra is located, have abandoned the city, there were few coalition forces present and very few Westerners at all. Most of the details of the operation publicized in the American press come from Iraqi stringers, the usual anonymous Iraqi officials, and, it seems, some Sadrist media outlets. In all previous operations where U.S. forces were present, we have learned that such information is of limited value. We simply do not yet know how well the ISF acquitted itself in the actual fighting, what if any areas were cleared, who was resisting, and so on.

Domestic critics of the war have so-far focused on a forensic dissection of what American commanders knew about Maliki's plans and when. Many have also hastened to argue that the flaws in the operation demonstrate the incompetence of the ISF. Those enthralled with prosecutorial inquisitions can amuse themselves by trying to figure out when Maliki told General David Petraeus he was going to attack, but what difference does it make? The operation was clearly imperfectly planned and was launched before the necessary conditions had been set. Failures of coordination did not prevent coalition forces from providing necessary air support--the most important reasons for Maliki to coordinate with Petraeus--even if it did require scrambling to meet an unexpected situation. Failure to set conditions properly led to a flawed operation, but reinforcements were flowing in when Sadr backed down, and it is hard to say how things would have proceeded if he had decided to fight.

It is too soon to judge the effects of this operation, particularly since those effects will depend heavily on what comes next. The following things, however, are already clear:

Maliki finally did what Congress and the administration have been pressing him to do for almost two years: attack the illegal Shia militias and criminal gangs with the intention of disarming them and establishing the rule of law. It is worth remembering that this undertaking was one of the congressionally mandated benchmarks.

The ISF mobilized more than 30,000 troops for the fight, including thousands drawn from outside of Basra. While it did use some coalition transport, it also employed its own aircraft for the movement, which went relatively smoothly. Again we might recall that a key benchmark in 2007 was the deployment of three Iraqi army brigades (perhaps 9,000 soldiers) to support the Baghdad Security Plan. The ISF just deployed more than three times that number on short notice to fight without coalition ground forces in support.

Iranian military intervention in Iraq should now be manifest to everyone. The commander of the Quds Force was himself involved in the cessation of fighting, and he did not "broker" the deal as a neutral mediator since his forces were among the belligerents.

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