Thursday, April 03, 2008

Decoding Iraq

The Central Government's surprise offensive against Shiite militias in Basra in the past week was (a) a bold move by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to quell lawlessness, (b) a rash, impulsive action that had to be bailed out by the US or (c) both, with the underlying motive of politically weakening Muqtada al-Sadr before provincial elections later in the year.

The Bush administration, of course, has called the offensive a “defining moment” to show the Iraqi government's determination to take on renegade militias.

On the ground, it looked different. “He went in with a stick and he poked a hornet’s nest," said an anonymous US official, "and the resistance he got was a little bit more than he bargained for. They went in with 70 percent of a plan."

As al-Maliki got bogged down, it took US generals, admirals, ground troops and air strikes to rescue the operation and restore an uneasy peace.

But the prime minister, now feeling his oats, is beginning to sound like Eliot Ness.

"We cannot remain silent about our people and families in Sadr City, Shula and other areas ... while they are held hostage by gangs that control them," he told a news conference. "We must liberate these cities because we came
to serve them."

When they get here next week to explain it all to Congress, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will undoubtedly spin it as a sign of progress.

But yesterday in Baghdad, Crocker was urging less militant means on Maliki, to proceed with a plan to seek alliances with Shiite tribes.

“We strongly encouraged him to use his most substantial weapon, which is money, to announce major jobs programs, Basra cleanup, whatnot,” Crocker said. “And to do what he decided to do on his own: pay tribal figures to effectively finance an awakening for Basra.”

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