All of a sudden, Monday, March 24, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki plunged the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra into bloody strife. And, just as suddenly, the offensive led against recalcitrant Shiite militias and gangs in Iraq’s second largest city became a turning-point in America’s five-year Iraq campaign.
The prime minister had decided to gamble his seat and his Shiite Dawa party on a lone offensive, without the US army, with the immediate prospect of sparking fraternal Shiite strife. Within 24 hours, the death toll climbed to scores, and the first tongues of flame were licking at Basra’s Shiite neighbors Kut, Samawa and Nasiriyeh and striking sparks in Baghdad’s sprawling Shiite Sadr City.
Unless it can be quickly extinguished or resolved, Iraq is clearly veering into a second sectarian war — on top of the Sunni versus Sunni conflict waged by Iraqi tribes against al Qaeda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraq sources report that the Iraqi prime minister decided to take up the cudgels against his rival coreligionists in Basra after listening to US President Dick Cheney sing the praises of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr during his two-day visit a week ago.
The truce, which the Shiite cleric’s Medhi Army militia extended in February for a second six-month period, contributed to the post-surge decline in violence in Iraq.
One of the points the vice president hammered home in all his meetings – with US diplomats led by Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Iraqi commander Gen. David Petraeus and his command, and the Iraqi government and its prime minister – was the importance of bringing Shiite Sadrists back into government and the top echelons of power in Baghdad.
Cheney made it clear that their leader, Moqtada Sadr, four years ago America’s most unyielding foe in Iraq, is now perceived as the only strong Shiite leader capable and willing to come to terms with Sunni Arab politicians, who like Kurdish power brokers find him acceptable.
Maliki takes extreme umbrage against Washington
Sadr is moreover prepared to fight off Iranian expansion in the oil-rich South.
Notwithstanding the radical cleric’s harsh rhetoric against American “occupation forces” and his demand for their withdrawal, Cheney argued that, in the final reckoning, he was pragmatic enough to work with the Americans and the Saudis to contain Iran’s influence and presence. The cleric has been quoted as saying “Iraqi Shiism is preferable to Persian Shiism.”
Most recently, prime minister Maliki bent over backwards to lend the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s epic visit to Baghdad on March 2 the character of a national holiday attended by millions of cheering Iraqi Shiites welcoming him in the streets of Baghdad.
As it turned out, Ahmadinejad’s cavalcade drove through nearly deserted streets. Moqtada Sadr had quietly told the community to stay at home, thus showing the prime minister humiliatingly who really governed the Shiite masses.
As Cheney flew out of Iraq, Maliki’s advisers warned DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Baghdad sources that the Iraqi prime minister did not propose to take any of this lying down.
Monday, he abruptly took his bureau, his senior staff, his advisers and himself to Basra, along with 15,000 loyal troops. There and then, he launched war on rival Shiite militias.
His arrival in the oil town and the belligerent language he aimed at the Mehdi Army – alone of all the lawless groups which rule the roost there – left Sadr little choice but to fight back.
On the second day of the government offensive, he declared a civil disobedience campaign, in the form of a general strike in all the Shiite regions of Iraq.
The next day, as bloody battles spread outside Basra, 30 Sadr-allied lawmakers, the largest bloc in parliament, demanded the prime minister’s resignation and threatened a vote of no confidence in his government over its crackdown against their movement.
The prime minister responded by giving the Basra militias 72 hours to lay down their homes and surrender.
The Sadrists walked out of parliament.
Hizballah plants a joker in the Iraqi pack
The Iraqi prime minister finds himself at war not only with the Medhi Army, but a hodgepodge of Shiite groups all jockeying for control of the Basra region and its oil treasure. They are not always distinguishable from the smugglers and crime rings believed to illegally siphon off at least one-tenth of South Iraq’s oil, which accounts for 70 percent of the national export.
Three major Shiite parties, members of the Shiite umbrella United Iraqi Alliance, which dominates parliament, have a hefty stake in the region.
The Mehdi Army is the most popular, although it has split of late into factions, more than half of which still defer to Moqtada Sadr. They control ports, customs and customs police.
The Fadhila Party, whose leader Mohammed al-Waeli is governor of Basra, dominates the oil companies based in the region, elements of local security forces and port installations.
The Badr Brigade belongs to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, which was founded in Tehran when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq.
Its leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is closest of the three to prime minister Maliki and his Dawa Party.
The joker in the pack is the newest Shiite arrival to Iraq, the Hizballah Brigades of Iraq, which is supplied with orders, fighters, weapons and funds from the headquarters of its Lebanese parent, with the backing of the al Qods Brigades of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Hizballah’s new armed wing, unnoticed in the West, has set up operations in Baghdad, Nasiriyeh and Kut as well as Basra and its oil port.
The government offensive veers out of control
South Lebanon’s stewpot of conflicting forces also contains 20 or so major indigenous tribes which exercise a strong pull on local allegiances. At least one of these tribes runs its own oil smuggling network.
Maliki’s urge to show the Americans who’s the boss of Iraq’s Shiites overlays another strong motive: He cherishes an ambition to link South Iraq’s oil industry to that of South Iran to form the foundation for the two countries’ future strategic interdependence. He has been hindered in this scheme by the chaotic assortment of militias, gangs and tribes enjoying free rein in the region.
Washington would like to see this plan fade away altogether, but can hardly interfere directly while maintaining that it is up to the Iraqis themselves to decide on the disposition of their oil resources.
Equally, the Americans cannot openly object to Maliki exercising central authority in the unruly Basra region.
The Iraqi leader has craftily timed it for a couple of weeks before Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petraeus deliver their latest report to Congress on the state of the Iraq war.
Maliki believes that his Basra venture, if it ends well, will leave them no choice but to hold it up as proof of their success in raising an Iraqi army capable of acting on its own to quell disorder in Iraq’s second largest city. The Americans can hardly admit it is a setback to their plans.
Like most things in Iraq, the battles raging in and around Basra, far from making this point, have quickly swung out of control. There is no knowing how it will end.
Two oil pipelines have already been damaged, with immediate effect on international oil prices.
Thursday, a bomb exploded underneath the Zubair-1 pipeline that sends crude oil from the Basra Zubair oil field to tanks for Iraq's two exporting terminals on the Gulf: al-Umaiya and Basra.
Tuesday night, a bomb damaged a domestic oil pipeline that links the Noor oil field in the southern Maysan province to the refinery in Basra.
For now, the prime minister does not look like bringing his expedition to a happy end.
Undeterred, he went on Iraqi state TV Thursday night vowing to fight to the end. “There will be no retreat!” he declared.
U.S. President George W. Bush, seeing political advantage in going along with Maliki’s effort, praised him for his “tough battle against militia fighters and criminals,” citing it as evidence that Baghdad is taking advantage of security gains by U.S. forces and the “progress Iraqi forces made during the surge.”