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Pulling Triggers in Iraq

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“If there were no Americans, there would be no fighting.”                                                                                     Abu Mustafa al-Thahabi, Senior Mahdi Army leader 

Is Basra this week an example of the tenor (or the terror?) of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s response to the “rule” of electoral politics as this has unfolded in most countries in the Middle East? That is, instead of the western “one person-one vote” formulation that so often had become “one person-one-vote-one time,”  has al-Maliki decided to try “one person-one bullet-one time” – or  a close equivalent ? 

Perhaps the chief question is why go after the Mahdi Army in Basra now? And right behind that is another: why did al-Maliki travel to Basra in public view when he has always been careful not to be prominent when events in which he was a prime mover were uncertain and his hand might be detected – much like the “Wizard of Oz” behind the curtain. 

Remember that next month U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker and the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, will be appearing before committees in both Houses of Congress to report on events in Iraq. They undoubtedly will informally transmit President Bush’s decision on whether to take a “summer pause” in further troop withdrawals after the last “surge” brigade combat team leaves Iraq.    

 By moving against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in Basra, the prime minister may believe he is in a win-win configuration. If the police forces and the Iraqi “Army”  divisions – largely non-Mahdi Army Shi’a militiamen who were “integrated” into the reconstituted national army created by the occupation forces – succeed in driving out al-Sadr’s forces, al-Maliki’s Dawa party and its allies will gain control of Iraq’s second largest city and solidify its hold on the chief export route for oil – and make it more difficult for al-Sadr’s allies in parliament to monitor the profits from oil sales that are suppose to rebuild Iraq.  

A further ramification, should al-Sadr’s organization in the south be severely compromised, is that Dawa and a smaller allied group, the Fadilha party, would face less opposition in controlling any “regional” government created from the nine southern provinces as allowed by the Iraqi constitution.  

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But should the core of al -Sadr’s military in Basra hold out, and they show no signs of collapsing after three days of fighting, the best that al-Maliki can hope for in the inevitable negotiations is a return to the status quo ante  

Less favorably, he might be forced to make concessions such as ceding control of larger sections of Basra to al-Sadr’s forces. But such set-backs, should they occur, could be recovered in Washington with Crocker-Petraeus pleading the case. To wit: the fighting in Basra and Baghdad, where U.S. occupation troops in armored vehicles rolled into three districts of Sadr City hunting for any and all Iraqis responsible for or with knowledge of the recent “steel rain” of mortars and artillery shells on the Green Zone, is proof that the occupation forces led by the U.S. cannot leave anytime soon. To go now or even in 2009 would imperil Iraq’s future.  

Despite all the news reports and all the images of death and destruction from last week’s combat in Iraq, along comes President Bush assuring the U.S. public that great progress has, is, and will continue to be made in Iraq. The fighting, according to Bush, is a clear sign of the growing confidence of Iraq’s politicians and government officials that they will soon be able to undertake on their own the reconstitution, reconstruction, and revitalization of Iraq as a single country. 

By the way, just ignore the 140,000 U.S. troops behind the curtain over there; they have nothing to do with what is happening in Iraq.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

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Colonel Daniel M. Smith graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1966. His initial assignment was with the 3rd Armor Division in (more...)

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