Monday, March 31, 2008

Basra ceasefire leaves Mahdi Army unbowed

Muqtada al-Sada has ordered his Shia militia Mahdi Army off the streets of Basra after a six day battle in which 163 people were killed and about 500 injured. Al Sada’s militiamen had engaged in long running gun battles with the Iraqi Army and police and the violence has spread to other southern cities and Baghdad. Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, claims most of the Basra area is now under government control. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now in Basra and had vowed to stay there until the militia was crushed. But now al-Askari said al-Maliki will return “soon” to Baghdad.

But even members of al-Maliki’s own government say that the Mahdi Army has withstood the US-supported Iraqi assault. Last week, Iraq’s defence minister, Abdul Kadir al-Obeidi, conceded that the government’s military efforts in Basra have met with far more resistance than was expected. Muqtada al-Sada has now demanded concessions in return for his ceasefire call. These include the government granting a general amnesty for his followers, releasing all his imprisoned members who have not been convicted of crimes and bringing back who he calls “the displaced people who have fled their homes as a result of military operations.”

The Iraqi Army started their assault on Basra on Tuesday. An eye witness account by former Iraqi captain Qais Mizher shows that the Mahdis had gained effective control of the city. He said the Iraqi Army assault initially appeared to have backfired as many neighbourhoods were deserted or overrun by the Mahdi Army despite military curfews. He saw scattered Iraqi Army and police checkpoints, but no place seemed to be truly under government control. In addition, travelling around the Shiite south of Iraq has been problematic since the Basra violence erupted.

While the Iraqi are mired in Basra, they were backed up by US fighter planes and helicopter gunships who struck the city and also the Baghdad’s Sadr City with bombs and missiles. The Sadr city slum is home to two million people and is considered Mahdi Army heartland. US helicopters fired missiles at Sadr while planes bombed Basra. Fighting has raged across much of the country with battles reported in Kut, Hilla, Amara, Kirkuk, and Baquba. Both Baghdad and Basra have been placed under a 24-hour curfew for the last three days.

The current violence has a political aim. It intends to severely weaken the Sadrists to the benefit of their political rivals, al-Maliki’s Dawa party and its principal government ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The ISCI is led by Shia cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose own militia, the Badr Brigade, is well represented in the government’s security forces. The Badr Brigade has strong links to the Iranian Government and its secret Quds Force which equips foreign Islamic revolutionary movements.

Some have questioned Prime Minister Nurik al-Maliki’s timing of the Basra assault. Kevin Drum has speculated that his actions got the green light from the Bush regime because of their liking of quick and decisive action, regardless of the consequences. He says Maliki may have calculated this would be a speedy mopping-up operation that would provide General Petraeus with good news ahead of his congressional testimony for his proposal on continued troop deployments. Alternatively it may be a chance to explain the bad news elsewhere with rising violence throughout Iraq at the moment. Lastly, the Basra operation offers another excuse not to withdraw troops.

While the Iraqi army are embarrassed on the streets of Basra, the well-trained 4,000 British army troops remain idly ensconced at Basra airport. They formally returned control of the city to the Iraqis in December but much of Basra has remained under the control of a combination of Iranian-backed militias and criminal gangs. The British retreat from Basra masterminded by Gordon Brown on his visit there in September last year is now looking short-sighted as the army sit helplessly by watching the city disintegrate into anarchic violence.

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