A story by Stephen Pharell and Ammar Karim in the New York Times this morning reports that there is a lot of good news coming out of Basra. It seems the Iraqi Army (with U.S. and British support) has calmed the city, largely ridding it of the harsh fundamentalist influence and violence of Moktadr al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. This is good news, of a sort.
It is also bad news for several reasons.
1) Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is closely aligned with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq – Hmmm, I wonder why they changed the name?). Arguably the most powerful political party in Iraq, their power base is in the oil-rich southern part of the country, particularly Basra. Why is this bad? Because SIIC is a proxy for Iran, as, one suspects, is al-Maliki. By aiding this effort to stabilize Basra (and rid the town of al-Sadr), we hand full control to the SIIC and move their government and this oil-rich region closer to Iran.
2) The gains are temporary. They occurred largely after a cease fire was declared, and without continued resistance from al-Sadr. The article is deliberate in emphasizing the tenuousness of the peace, a fact well recognized by the city’s citizens. It is premature to see this as a significant victory.
3) Basra was supposed to be the easy city, remember? Back when the British had control of the town, there was very little violence and Basra was often referenced as an example of how well our efforts in Iraq were working. What happened? Well, parliamentary elections are coming up. The move to eliminate the Mahdi Army is likely an effort consolidate political power for SIIC and al-Maliki. See #1 for why this is bad.
The big question is, who is the greater danger to the U.S. in the long run? al-Sadr or the SIIC?
To me, it isn’t at all clear that we are helping ourselves by helping SIIC. And this is the fundamental, intractable problem in Iraq. Helping al-Sadr isn’t an alternative either. In Iraq, we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.