Two stories about Basra and Sadr City – you decide who is winning

Summary:  Here are two stories about Iraq.  One by Ralph Peters, which says we are winning.  One by Gary Brecher, which says we are losing.  Can anyone tell us which is correct?

Ralph Peters writes “Success in Iraq: a Media Blackout“, New York Post (20 May 2008) — Excerpt:

Do we still have troops in Iraq? Is there still a conflict over there?  If you rely on the so-called mainstream media, you may have difficulty answering those questions these days. As Iraqi and Coalition forces pile up one success after another, Iraq has magically vanished from the headlines.  Want a real “inconvenient truth?” Progress in Iraq is powerful and accelerating.

… Then tragedy struck {the US media}: As in Basra the month before, absent-without-leave (and hiding in Iran) Muqtada al Sadr quit under pressure from Iraqi and US troops. The missile and mortar attacks on the Green Zone stopped. There’s peace in the streets.  Today, Iraqi soldiers, not militia thugs, patrol the lanes of Sadr City, where waste has replaced roadside bombs as the greatest danger to careless footsteps. US advisers and troops support the effort, but Iraq’s government has taken another giant step forward in establishing law and order.

My fellow Americans, have you read or seen a single interview with any of the millions of Iraqis in Sadr City or Basra who are thrilled that the gangster militias are gone from their neighborhoods?

He also describes the Kurds as a major success for American policy.

On the other hand we have Gary Brecher, the War Nerd:  “From Lebanon To Iraq: We’re In Deep Shia Now“, The Exile (15 May 2008) — Excerpt:

What just happened in Lebanon happened six weeks ago in Iraq: weak central government tries to “assert itself” against rising Shia militia, gets smacked down, then after the smackdown, the Shia militia hands back territory. In the case of Iraq, it was a Shia government, so this was all Shia-on-Shia violence, Maliki’s army vs. Sadr’s militia.

I hear from sources in Iraq that US officers advising Maliki warned him that his “army” (basically Badr Brigade vets wearing Iraqi National uniform) weren’t good enough to take on Sadr’s militia on their home ground, but woke up to find the armored columns already moving south to Basra and east into Sadr City. They should have stayed in bed, as the saying goes, because if they’d had another nap-say an hour or so-they’d have seen the same columns breaking all speed limits coming back to base, stomped to within an inch of their lives.

There was a story last week that showed why the Iraqi Army would rather fight Al Q than keep battering its head against the Sadrists in East Baghdad. This Iraqi officer was whining, “The Shia in this neighborhood PROMISED us that they’d let us patrol in our vehicles and tell us where the IEDs were buried, they PROMISED, and then within ten meters of leaving our base three IEDs went off under us! It’s not fair!”

That’s what happens when you fight people who have the neighborhood behind them, and that’s why it’s way, way easier to go to Mosul to track down some nerd-gang of Saudi dweebs who took up Jihad 1A because they flunked Engineering or they’re scared of girls or something. Dying solves a lot of problems for people like that.

He also describes events in Lebanon as another major failure for American policy.

I could find more “established” sources for each view, with better reputations.  But these guys clearly state the case.  The Iraq government is winning in Basra and Sadr City, and the locals are happy.  Or they Iraq government was defeated, and the locals still back the al Sadr.  Both are totally confident of their view.  The war bloggers support Peter’s view, as do the mainstream media reports.  See these (hat tip to Juan Cole’s Informed Comment).

Iraqi troops welcomed in Sadr City for first time“, McClatchy Newspapers (20 May 2008) — Opening:  “Iraqi security forces entered Baghdad ‘s Sadr City in large numbers on Tuesday for the first time since followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr agreed two weeks ago to let them in.”

IRAQ: A scarred district gives a wary welcome to Iraqi soldiers“, LA Times’ blog (20 May 2008) — Excerpt:  “As I went deeper in Sadr City, however, residents expressed relief at the sight of Iraqi soldiers in streets that have been the almost exclusive preserve of Sadr’s militiamen. The troops met no resistance as they fanned out through the neighborhood.”

Operation in Sadr City Is an Iraqi Success, So Far“, New York Times (21 May 2008) — Excerpt:

Iraqi forces rolled unopposed through the huge Shiite enclave of Sadr City on Tuesday, a dramatic turnaround from the bitter fighting that has plagued the Baghdad neighborhood for two months, and a qualified success for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.  As it did in the southern city of Basra last month, the Iraqi government advanced its goal of establishing sovereignty and curtailing the powers of the militias.  … By late Tuesday, Iraqi troops had pushed deep into the district and set up positions around hospitals and police stations, which the Iraqi government was seeking to bring under its control.

 … Mr. Maliki had responded to a challenge from Shiite militias in Basra by mounting a hasty operation. The military campaign caught American officials by surprise and appeared to sputter at the start as the Iraqi forces faced logistical problems and more than 1,000 desertions.  But as the Basra operation proceeded and Iraqi troops began to pour into the city, militia commanders drifted away. Mr. Maliki was strengthened politically in his drive to shape an image as a strong and decisive leader, the kind of leader many Iraqis, Sunni and Shiite, think is needed to control the country.

… So far, the Iraqi Army has been a winner. Iraqi commanders received, and sometimes rejected, advice from the American military. But in the end they were able to execute a plan that was very much their own.

Only one version is correct, that of Ralph Peters or The War Nerd.  Which?  Even more important than your answer, what is the evidence supporting your answer?


“Iraq: Al-Sadr Accepts State Control”, Stratfor (21 May 2008) — They provide a more nuanced analysis than the ones listed above, which mostly supports the “Ralph Peters” view of events.  Excerpt:

Iraqi security forces are settling into Baghdad’s Sadr City, the stronghold of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, which they entered a day earlier. This major development indicates that the al-Sadrite movement is moving toward working within the system. Such a process could greatly facilitate a U.S.-Iranian understanding on Iraq.

… The entity that wields the most influence among Iraq’s Shia is Iran, which until fairly recently was using the divisions within the Iraqi Shiite landscape to deal with the United States. With Washington aligned with the Sunnis, intra-Shiite rivalries weaken Iran’s position in Iraq. This forced Tehran to unify the warring factions among the Shia, namely, the al-Sadrite movement and Iran’s main proxy, the Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim-led Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – which dominates the political establishment in Baghdad.

This calculus explains why al-Sadr stood down in the wake of the recent military operations in Basra. … Al-Sadr knows there is only so much political capital to be gained from operating a militia, while al-Maliki knows the risks of an all-out assault on the al-Sadrites. … The Iranians have been overseeing intense negotiations between the government and the al-Sadrites and it would appear they are making progress.

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5 thoughts on “Two stories about Basra and Sadr City – you decide who is winning”

  1. I don’t see much contradiction. All reports that I read indicate that although the Iraqi government forces (or whatever they are) control Basra, but the opposing militias were not destroyed. All reports that I know of agree or don’t refute that additional militias remain relevant in Basra, but are not unfriendly to the Government’s troops.

    They got the city, but that required iirc about 30,000 troops. The government won’t be able to do that in all hot provinces at once without even more troops.

    The dependency of the government on factions/militias to survive seems to remain unchanged. There’s a civil war, some factions are pro-government, some contra and some even neutral. Even if all contra militias would disappear, civil war could go on with conflicts among the other factions.

    A concentration of power at one location yields good results, but it doesn’t tell us whether the militias who lost ground really needed it badly. Maybe they can recover and learn?

    The story goes on, that’s for sure.

  2. John Shreffler

    The fundamentals favor Brecher’s story. I don’t think that the Iraqi government forces are worth spit and I also think that they’re under Iranian control at the highest levels, so whatever is going on is theater to appease the American high command. So long as the Iraqi government is run by Dawa/SIIC Shi’ites, any activies there are going to be cleared with Khameni before they happen.
    Faabius Maximus replies: You may be right (all the data I have is posted on this site, and it is inconclusive or contradictory on these questions). What is your supporting evidence for these beliefs?

  3. On the surface it appears that the Iraqi government have come out ahead, but who knows.

    It does raise the question what information is required in order to make a fair assessment of events and the probable outcome? And who could/would make it public. I can’t help but notice that none of the articles includes comments from the Sadr organization. It does risk painting a one-sided picture.

    And what about more indirect factors. Has there been a change the control of oil smuggling from Basra? Is the government control of land resulting in a loss of revenue for Sadr’s group? If yes then maybe there has been a shift in power.

  4. The War Nerd may not always be correct on every fact, but I’d trust him more than a state-worshiper like Peters.

  5. John Shreffler

    As for evidence, for Iranian control of Iraqi forces, I’d just simply point out that Maliki seems to depend on Hakim to say in power and point to where Hakim and his faction came from when we took Iraq in 2003. Everything I’ve seen from the Iraqi government shows extreme solicitude for the Iranians.

    Gareth Porter has a story up on IPS on how Maliki stopped a presentation by our folks on how arms captured from the Sadr Army came from Iran: “On May 4, after an Iraqi delegation had returned from meetings in Iran, al-Maliki’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said in a news conference that al-Maliki was forming his own Cabinet committee to investigate the U.S. claims. “We want to find tangible information and not information based on speculation,” he said.”

    That said, I’m going more on a general gut sense, based on a lot of readings on the Iraqi Shi’ites and how they relate to Iran.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You make a good case that Iran has much influence on the Iraq government, but I believe you overstate their degree of influence. One could just as (or even more) easily cite evidence that ” Iraqi government forces are under” American control.”

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