Still Watching Basra

[ Posted Tuesday, March 25th, 2008 – 15:36 UTC ]

Last September, I wrote an article about Iraq titled "Watch Basra." Back then, I wrote:

I have to admit that I have no magic crystal ball. I cannot predict which outcome will happen in Basra from such a distance, and at such remove. I truly have no idea how it will happen, or how it will be presented to Americans on their nightly news… or (perhaps more importantly) how it will all be spun by the politicians. Nobody outside of the U.K. seems to be paying much attention to Basra. That may change soon, as conditions on the ground warrant.

But while I admit to no prophetic powers myself, I am smart enough to make one major prognostication:

Watch Basra.

Because as goes Basra may go the entire Iraq debate in Washington.

Today, the American media (print, at least) has roused itself to report on what is happening in Basra. Whether the television news will pay any attention or just run a one-sentence filler is still to be determined: ("Some people got killed in Basra today. But enough of that, on to March Madness news...").

Since the British pulled out of the city of Basra, I have been saying that it is a good "test case" for what could happen in Iraq after the coalition forces leave. Today's news reinforces my opinion even more. But while no one (not me, nor anyone else) has the answers as to what Iraq is going to look like after we're gone, I'm hoping that this time the media will actually ask the right questions. And critically examine the evidence as it comes in. Because there just hasn't been enough attention given to the main question: What is going to happen after we leave Iraq?

The fact that nobody wants to address this issue is not too surprising, since the answer probably isn't going to make anybody all that happy. The pro-war crowd (see: Bush, McCain) issue dire warnings about Al Qaeda taking over the country if we don't stay there for 100 years. The anti-war crowd (see: endless polls of the vast majority of the American public) isn't any better, since for the most part they don't even address the issue at all. But everyone should pay close attention to Basra to see how things may play out.

Since this is Iraq, the basic situation is complex. The city of Basra is Iraq's southern port and a key shipping point to export oil. It is also part of a supply line for American forces, due to its proximity to the route from Kuwait to Baghdad. So Basra is of critical strategic importance -- both to Iraqis and to Americans.

The British, last September, pulled out of the city center and hunkered down in a military base on the outskirts of town (rather than join in our "surge," they decided to try the opposite -- call it the British "ebb" instead). This allowed at least three Shi'ite factions to begin battling for control of the city -- Muqtada al-Sadr's "Mahdi Army" (known as JAM inside Iraq); the "Badr Brigade" (the military arm of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council); and a smaller faction of the Shi'ite party Fadhila.

These three groups (and even smaller ones) have been fighting for control of Basra since the British pulled back. Now add to the mix the Iraqi Army and other national forces under the Maliki government, who have just started an offensive to take the city and impose some security.

As I said, like everything in Iraq, it's complex. It should be noted that this is an internecine fight -- these groups are all Shi'ite groups, and even the Iraqi Army forces are largely Shi'ite. Making things even more complicated is the fact that both Sadr's forces and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council are political parties with blocs of votes within the Iraqi government itself.

Maliki, on the surface, seems to be trying to do the right thing. Over and over again Americans have been asking "when will the Iraq Army be able to provide security on their own?" so Maliki's move can be seen as trying to do just that. The British are apparently not coming out of their base, and are leaving the situation almost entirely within Iraqi hands (the Brits are providing intelligence and surveillance from the air, but that's it for now). So this is the first real and honest test of the theory: "When the Iraqis stand up, we can stand down."

But it's impossible to know what Maliki is doing when you look below the surface. He has said for some time now that the national government will go after not just Sunni militias, but also Shi'ite militias as well. So hitting the two biggest Shi'ite militia groups in Basra can be seen as fulfilling this pledge (somewhat).

But Maliki does so at great risk. A large part of the overall reduction in violence in Iraq can be ascribed to Sadr's cease fire, which has been in effect for over half a year now. This may now be changing. Sadr has reportedly told his followers that they may now protect themselves in "self defense." Add to this reports that the Mahdi Army has taken over most of the town of Kut and is preparing other "civil disobedience" throughout Iraq, and you have to wonder how much longer the cease fire will be in effect. Sadr is not happy about what is going on in Basra, and if it continues he may well turn his forces loose completely.

So, while I admittedly don't have the answers, here are the questions we should be asking at this point in time:

  • Will the Iraq Army succeed in pacifying Basra?
  • Will this translate into strengthening Maliki's government, which has been roundly criticized for not controlling any Iraqi territory outside Baghdad's Green Zone (where they meet)?
  • If Maliki succeeds in Basra, can such success be repeated elsewhere in the country?
  • Will the British jump into the fray, either with combat air support, or with troops in Basra itself?
  • Will the British pull out of Basra (and Iraq) entirely?
  • Will Muqtada al-Sadr end the Mahdi Army's cease fire (and what will this mean for the rest of the country)?
  • Will this disrupt the flow of oil out of Iraq (Basra is crucial to this flow, as it is Iraq's main port)?
  • Will the supply lines for American forces be disrupted from Kuwait badly enough that we have to commit our own forces to the area, in order to secure these supply lines?
  • Is this the beginning of yet another phase of the Iraqi civil war?
  • Because the fighting is close to the Iranian border, will it ratchet up the rhetoric from the White House about confronting Iran?

The most important two questions for the American domestic audience, however, may be:

  • Will it even get covered by the American television media, or will nobody notice?
  • Whether Maliki is successful or not, how will it be spun politically here?

That last one may sound crass, but it is interesting. If Maliki's attempt to take Basra fails, the pro-war folks will be saying: "See, chaos would have happened if Bush hadn't sent the 'surge' troops in, and this is why American troops need to stay in Iraq for a long time to come." The anti-war side will tell the story differently: "The Maliki government is a powerless U.S. puppet, and no matter how long we stay, they're going to have a civil war when we leave. Keeping troops there just means more American casualties until the inevitable final battle takes place between the Iraqis themselves over who will control the country."

Conversely, if Maliki is successful in imposing control over Basra by routing the militia groups, and showing that the central government can actually function, the stories will be different. The pro-war people will point to such a success and say: "See, fully training the Iraqi Army worked. Victory is possible in Iraq, we just have to be a little patient while they build on the success in Basra." The anti-war folks will say: "We told you the British method of pulling back made the most sense -- when you leave the fighting to the Iraqis themselves, they are successful. This means we should bring the troops home quickly." Both of these will be variations of "declaring victory."

But what I really hope is that some of the above questions will actually be asked of the three remaining candidates for president. Because I would really like to hear what their answers are. Soon enough, one of them is going to be in charge of the war, so rather than the ongoing fluff about which-campaign-advisor-said-what, it would be nice to hear what each of the candidates has to say about the situation in Basra.

If the media bothers to ask, that is.


-- Chris Weigant


6 Comments on “Still Watching Basra”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    Thoughful post Chris.

    I too would like to know what the candidates think of these events and what if any plans they have if they become President.

    I also think that the current Congress will be slow to react other than to mouth the usual sound bites.

    I agree that the media has failed in its duty to question the government and the candidates on such important issues.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Very good commentary, CW.. I was impressed with the depth of your knowledge...

    First, though, let me say that I really hate the "anti war" and "pro war" terminology. It's so prejudicial and misleading.. No one in their right mind is "PRO" war. Any reasonable rational human being would HAVE to be Anti War... That's just a minor pet peeve of mine.

    In any case, you do pick up on the spin excellently. But it does leave the anti Iraq War crowd in a little bit o pickle.. If they, as you project, claim that "We told you the British method of pulling back made the most sense — when you leave the fighting to the Iraqis themselves, they are successful." then the next logical step would be to point out to the anti Iraq War crowd that the "success" came at a high price in Iraqi lives. Lives that would NOT have been lost if US Forces were there to assist.. And therein lies the pickle.. The anti Iraq War crowd could respond to that with a, "Well, that's fine, as long as it's not American lives being lost." message But that would seem to be hypocritical in light of their constant whining about the loss of Iraqi lives in this "unjust war"... The anti Iraq War crowd's position is not based on any sort of logic. It's a position riveted in emotion. It has been my experience that any position taken in emotion is, usually (not always, but usually) the wrong position to take.


  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    You're probably right about the labeling. I started using "anti-war" a while back because someone complained I was labeling the "hard left" as being against the war, and they were an anti-war righty! So I started using the more generic "anti-war" to describe those against the war (of any political stripe). In this article, I needed to explain the opposite opinion, and I chose "pro-war" (for the first time, I believe, I usually call them "Bushies" or "neo-cons" or similar labels) when I probably shouldn't have. How about "supporters of the war" or maybe "supporters of the Bush policy on the war"... hmmm, neither of those are very snappy. Problem is, I need a short and easy term...

    I'll think about it. Labels are divisive in more ways than one, I guess.

    Irony is, I thought I did a pretty fair job of showing how both sides would react in similar ways, through the lens of their own personal agenda. In other words, I was really trying to be even-handed here (while, of course, taking gratuitous swipes at the media).

    But like I said, I'll think twice next time. Maybe "war supporters"?


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Sorry if I came across as snotty... I realize you have to call the two groups SOMETHING...

    But you do raise an interesting point.. Are those who are protesting the Iraq War truly "anti-war"?? Or are they just "anti IRAQ War"?? Actually, the cynical side of me thinks that these people aren't really anti war or Iraq War at all. They are just anti-Bush and will use any flimsy excuse to show that...

    Pursuing this line of thought, as I said, anyone who is actually PRO WAR is a psychopath or sociopath..... How would you pigeon-hole someone who is anti-war, but not to the exclusion of self-defense..

    As I said, don't feel like I was slamming your terminology. It's just a pet peeve of mine. One could still be ANTI-WAR and still be PRO-IRAQ WAR..

    How to state that in a convenient one/two word label is a daunting task... :D


  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Actually, I didn't think you were being snotty, I thought it was a valid criticism (just like the one that made me disassociate "anti-war" with "lefty"). It was less snottier than some of your comments... whoops, now I'M being snotty, sorry!

    heh heh.

    There is indeed a spectrum of the anti-war community. Some people, often through very strongly-held religious beliefs (Quakers, for instance) are anti-the-concept-of-war. Even in WWII, they only entered the Army as Conscientious Objecters. Being a CO in WWII was a brave thing to do, when the enemy was clearly defined, obviously evil, and with world-domination as their objective. Some would say it's just as hard today, but it's always hard to compare such things.

    Anyway, then there are anti-Iraq-war people. I've met people who are strongly anti-Iraq-war, who actually supported the war in Afghanistan. They see their position as consistent and logical.

    Then there are folks who are anti-Bush, or I would put it anti-Bush-war, you're right.

    I lump them all together as anti-war since I don't think any of them would disagree with that label. As I said, I used to call them "the anti-war left" until I was corrected. There are soldiers serving right now in Iraq who are anti-Iraq-war, for instance. But with any label comes problems. That's why I'm overly sensitive when I use one that someone validly objects to.

    I think I like "war supporters" or more properly "Iraq war supporters" for the same reason -- I don't think anyone in that category would object to the label. "Pro-war" could be objectionable, you are correct.

    But some labels I don't really care if the person being labeled objects to or not. Example: Darth Cheney.



  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    It was less snottier than some of your comments… whoops, now I'M being snotty, sorry!

    "Ouch! And the ref takes a point away!"
    -Jim Carrey, LIAR LIAR


    Your other points are dead on ballz accurate.. :D


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