Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Blowback of the Battle of Basra

It didn't even seem like much of a battle but the conflict last week between the Iraqi Army and Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army may have just reshaped Iraq and Washington's plans for the future of that country.

Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki gambled his army could take out Sadr's Mahdi Army and thereby crush Sadr's movement and popularity before the October elections. It was Maliki of the Dawa party joining forces with the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq and its Badr Corps militia to bring down their Shiite rival, Muqtada and the Sadrists.

Under the guise of ridding Basra of bandits, Maliki mustered a force of 30,000 and set off to put an end to the Sadr movement. A lot of observers believe this had to have been done only with American approval and input. They don't believe the timid Maliki would have moved without Washington's okay.

Bush was almost giddy at the outset. He reminded me of the way he acted when Israel sought to crush Hezbollah in Lebanon. Utterly delighted. He even threw American airpower into the mix in support of the Iraqi army. Then, when by day three it became obvious that Sadr and his Mahdi Army were not just holding their own but actually giving the Iraqi forces a mauling, Bush took his leave and began trying to put as much distance as possible between the White House and Maliki. That, too, is a dance Bush has done before.

Why the move on Muqtada? Because he's widely expected to win Basra in the upcoming elections and, while Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist, he's committed to expelling what his people call "the occupier." Basra also happens to be of critical importance to Washington. It's the key to the enormous oil wealth of southern Iraq, wealth Muqtada al Sadr doesn't want to see fall into foreign (American) hands. That's been the plan ever since Paul Bremer wrote Iraq's new oil law. Basra, located on the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, is also the gateway for Iraqi oil destined for the Persian Gulf.

Last week's scrap may turn into a blunder of enormous proportions for Baghdad and Washington. When it was over everybody had a new hand of cards and, like it or not, it's now Sadr who's holding aces.

I'll bet right now Washington is busy looking around for someone to replace al Maliki in time to do something about Sadr before the October elections. When you start tossing about names, why does Petraeus keep coming to the top?

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