More to the point, now what do we do? On March 25th, a military debacle of major proportions began. It ended the following Sunday, but the ramifications of this engagement will continue for months, and if America's leaders are not listening, years.
The fighting in Basra, Baghdad (including numerous rocket and mortar attacks on the fortified Green Zone), and other parts of southern Iraq controlled by the Mahdi Army confirmed what many already knew. The Iraqi Army and police are a pathetic lot whose loyalty and devotion to duty are in very serious question. They cannot even successfully engage a gang of misfits. As for providing security for Iraq, that dream is years away ... if ever.
The former sanctuary, the Green Zone, is the home of the Iraqi government, the American command post, and the largest American embassy in the world.
The Mahdi Army is based in Sadr City, a slum district within Baghdad, and is commanded by the Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. The district is named after his father, who was murdered along with two of his sons in Feb. 1999. Middle East correspondent, Patrick Cockburn, describes al-Sadr in this way, "Muqtada belongs to the most famous religious family in Iraq, which is the al-Sadr family. He's really the third in line. [Muqtada's father] drew his power from the first really important al-Sadr, Muhammad Baqir, who was executed by Saddam in 1980, together with his sister. So it's really a family of martyrs, and that's why Muqtada suddenly emerged from nowhere with the fall of Saddam. If you had passed around a picture of him in Washington at the time of the overthrow of Saddam, I doubt if any of them would have heard of Muqtada." Moreover, while many of today's Iraqi leaders left during the Saddam regime, al-Sadr did not leave. This fact alone endears him to the Shiite masses.
In the fighting that began on March 25th, dozens of militiamen from both sides were killed in clashes that broke out in Baghdad, Basra, Kut, Samawa, Hilla and most of the Iraqi Shia southern provinces between the Mahdi Army and other militias supported by the U.S., Iran and the Iraqi government.The rival Shia militia, the Badr Brigade is headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is also head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) that dominates the government. The Dawa Militia is controlled by the Dawa Party, which is headed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both the Badr and Dawa organizations were allied with U.S. forces. Recalling the Awakening Councils -- a group of Sunni insurgents labeled "Concerned Citizens" by Bush -- one might surmise that General David Petraeus is willing to pay just about anyone not to fire on American troops. What a way to fight a war. If you can't defeat the enemy, buy him off.
On March 25th, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive against the Mahdi Army and "criminal elements" in Basra using 30,000 Iraqi Army troops and policemen brought in to take control of the city. Basra is Iraq's second largest city and a vital port for the distribution of Iraqi oil. Al-Sadr returned the favor by not only putting up stiff resistance in Basra but also attacking other targets in southern and central Iraq, including Baghdad and the Green Zone. Al-Maliki went to Basra to take personal command of the Iraqi forces largely because his reputation was at stake. To put the best face on it, the offensive did not go well. Over 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, including officers and commanders, simply deserted. Later in the week al-Maliki acknowledged he may have miscalculated by failing to foresee the strong backlash that his offensive provoked in areas of Baghdad and other cities where Shiite militias wield power.
One indicator that this offensive represents a comedy of errors and a tragedy for American interests is that on Tuesday, March 25th, al-Maliki issued a surreal order to the Mahdi Army to lay down its weapons with a deadline of the following Friday. He later extended that deadline to April 8th. On Saturday, 40 Iraqi policeman surrendered their weapons to al-Sadr's representative in Sadr City. One masked policeman proclaimed anonymously for fear of reprisal, "We can't fight our brothers in the Mahdi Army, so we came here to submit our weapons." Isn't that just wonderful.
Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite politics and a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, stated flatly, "Maliki is done."
It gets worse. If the start of this offensive was pure folly based on criminal miscalculation, the end of the fighting is a shocking embarrassment to both the Iraqi and American governments. Iraqi lawmakers traveled to the Iranian holy city of Qom over the weekend to win the support of the commander of Iran's Qods brigades in persuading Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to order his followers to stop military operations. The Iraqi lawmakers held talks with Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Qods (Jerusalem) brigades of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and signed an agreement with Sadr, which formed the basis of his statement Sunday. Sadr ordered a ceasefire on Sunday, and his Mahdi Army militia heeded the order in Baghdad.
Just how embarrassing is this? No less than the President of the United States has accused the Qods brigades of supplying arms to Shiite militias, and the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in September labeling the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. With all the influence the U.S. has in Iraq, our mighty armed forces, our huge diplomatic corps housed in the largest embassy on Earth, can the U.S. influence restraint in this latest brutal fighting? Nope. But Iran can, a nation we may attack before the year is out. How ludicrous is that? Does Bush and his generals have the slightest clue as to what is happening in the Mideast, Iraq and Iran in particular?
Now if they are befuddled, I return to my original question, what do we do? I am not going to answer that question. That query calls for an expert. Any suggestion I may offer would be less than worthless.
There is plethora of generals from which I could choose and all say the same thing. I chose as my expert Lt. Gen. William E. Odom [ret]. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Iraq following this latest debacle, Gen. Odom stated, "The only sensible strategy is to withdraw rapidly but in good order. Only that step can break the paralysis now gripping US strategy in the region. The next step is to choose a new aim, regional stability, not a meaningless victory in Iraq. And progress toward that goal requires revising our policy toward Iran." He then adds, "Naysayers insist that our withdrawal will create regional instability. This confuses cause with effect. Our forces in Iraq and our threat to change Iran's regime are making the region unstable. Those who link instability with a US withdrawal have it exactly backwards. Our ostrich strategy of keeping our heads buried in the sands of Iraq has done nothing but advance our enemies' interest."
General, Sir, I couldn't have said it any better myself.
Just to add to the mix, Osama bin Laden, remember him (?), would dance with glee in his cave in eastern Pakistan if the U.S. attacked Iran, an arch foe of al Qa'ida much like Iraq during the Saddam years.
Sandy Shanks is the author of two novels, The Bode Testament and Impeachment. He is also a retired columnist who specialized in political/military affairs.
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