McCain: ‘Surprised’; Fighting Subsides in Baghdad, Basra; Analysts: Sadr Strengthened

My column, “Why al-Maliki Attacked Basra,” is now available at Salon.com

John McCain said he was surprised that Nuri al-Maliki would abruptly launch an operation against Basra. It seems to me that there are only two possibilities here.

Either McCain really did not know and did not anticipate the trouble in Basra, in which case he does not know much about Iraq and isn’t better qualified to deal with it than anyone else.

Or, he and Cheney helped put al-Maliki up to the whole thing while he was there, and now is petrified that someone will hang the fiasco around his neck.

McClatchy reports that the security situation in Baghdad and Basra improved somewhat on Monday (see the video below) but that things were still unsettled. The Green Zone took mortar fire, and several Shiite neighborhoods in the capital remained surrounded by Iraqi and US troops. There appear also to be strong tensions in Basra, and a wariness on the Mahdi Army’s part that the government will take advantage of any truce to arrest its commanders.

Reuters concludes that the crisis strengthened al-Sadr and much weakened Prime Minister al-Maliki. One of the experts it interviews also warns that the fighting this past week is only a prelude to a big struggle among Shiite factions for control of the South.

RFE /RL interviews veteran Iraq-watcher Joost Hiltermann about the clashes of the past week between Shiite factions:

‘ Hiltermann says the political nature of the power struggle quickly became apparent as the fighting began. The national army units involved were units from southern Iraq, where the recruiting has been heavily from the Supreme Council’s Badr Organization.

He says that the other major component of the Iraqi Army, recruits from the Kurdish militias in northern Iraq, “would not go down to the south to fight this kind of fight.”

As the clashes intensified, the 28,000 soldiers involved in the operation proved unable to quickly drive al-Sadr’s Imam Al-Mahdi Army from the streets, despite U.S. air support. In the interim, Sadrists in other towns in the south, as well as in Baghdad’s sprawling Al-Sadr City slum, tactically spread the fighting there. That escalated the stakes for al-Maliki’s government to unacceptable levels as it raised fears of a general insurrection by al-Sadr’s forces. . .

So, what happens next? One player to watch is al-Maliki. The prime minister, who is from a Shi’ite religious party, Al-Da’wah, t has no strong militia, has had to ally himself at various times with al-Sadr or the Supreme Council. Al-Sadr’s party helped him win his post as prime minister, but since then the Sadrists have distanced themselves from him as he has worked closely with the United States, which al-Sadr wants out of Iraq.

Al-Maliki has worked hard to portray himself as a national figure able to restore security and suppress corruption in Iraq. His strong identification with the Supreme Council in leading a fight against al-Sadr, however, now may damage that image, handicapping him as a leader.’

Aljazeera English reports on the end of hot warfare in Baghdad’s Sadr City and Basra:

If you haven’t been following our joint Global Affairs blog, do take a look at the recent postings of Barnett Rubin (on how Iran is saving Bush’s Iraq surge and on the Taliban in Afghanistan and even on Uri Avnery and the Arab-Israeli conflict). Also Cunningham on China, Norton on Lebanon, and Farhi on Iran’s elections.

As always, lots of food for thought on matters of war and peace at at Tomdispatch.com

At the Napoleon’s Egypt blog, two letters by British foe of Bonaparte Sir Sydney Smith, on how the French were foiled at Acre and also back in Egypt.

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