Clashes Continue in Basra: Badr Militia Strengthened

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that clashes continued to be fought in Basra on Thursday between Iraqi government troops and the Mahdi Army militia.

It also says that US troops in civilian clothing were targeted in the Shiite city of Hillah south of Baghdad. They were attacked by unknown gunmen and had to call in airstrikes on enemy positions. So how come they were wearing civilian cloths?

The same report discussed the arrest of Yusuf Sanawi, leader of Tha’r Allah (the revenge of God), which stands accused of being behind much of the violence in Basra.

The LAT says Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is intent on pursuing his struggle with the Mahdi Army militia, not only in the southern port city of Basra but in other Shiite cities as well. Apparently he thinks big talk will substitute for successful military operations.

In response, Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, called for demonstrations on Friday and then for a million-man march on April 9, the anniversary of the US occupation of Baghdad and the fall of the Baath government. (Sadr is happy about the fall of Saddam; unhappy about the foreign military occupation).

Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that Iran and Kuwait have closed their borders with Iraq and halted the import-export trade because of the deterioration of security.

The New York Times confirms that “over a thousand” officers and troops of the Iraqi army declined to fight the Mahdi Army in Basra or deserted their posts. It also reports that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki replaced them by inducting 10,000 Shiite “tribal” fighters into the Iraqi army. But the Iraqi press didn’t call them “tribal,” it called them Badr Corps, the paramilitary of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and now al-Maliki’s main political ally. I’m not sure about the source of the discrepancy, but the NYT piece seems to be based on interviews with Iraqi and American government officials. It is possible that the need to strengthen the Iraqi army by turning to a Shiite militia trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (terrorists!) was just too embarrassing to admit. So the officials used the euphemism “tribal forces” with the foreign press.

Fred Kaplan at Slate asks the good question of whether the induction of the Badr fighters into the army means that the Iraqi government is increasingly dependent on that militia. I think the answer is clearly yes. Indeed, the only effective fighters the Iraqi military has appear to be Badr Corps and Kurdish Peshmerga. (Apparently the Kurdish troops declined to go all the way down south to Basra, and the 14th Division that did go down is made up of southern Shiites, many of them with Sadrist sympathies.)

For the Iraqi government to depend on Badr and Peshmerga militias, however, weakens its independence and makes it hostage to allies of Iran (both Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq and a Kurdish leader, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, have close relations with the Iranian ayatollahs.) So not only did Iran gain stature and authority in Iraq by negotiating a (fragile) ceasefire between al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr, but al-Maliki has is now more than ever dependent on Iranian clients.

Wayne White of the Middle East Institute makes the interesting observation that the Mahdi Army became stronger in Basra because of the US troop escalation in Baghdad. Many fighters, seeking to wait out the surge, relocated to Basra, where their strength surprised al-Maliki

Jonathan Steele argues that al-Sadr came out of the episode much strengthened. He suggests that Cheney may have greenlighted the operation when he was there, in hopes that it would produce dramatic good news in time for the upcoming Petraeus / Crocker appearances before Congress. If so, it backfired big time.

IPS reports on the way in which Iraq has again become central to the presidential campaign The silly McCain campaign assertions that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror or that al-Qaeda would take over Iraq if the US pulled out are subjected to some searching criticism.