« Basra Force Ratios | Main | Offensive of the Weak »

March 28, 2008

The Knight's Move

By Cernig

Earlier today, Fester wondered by Maliki has gone charging into a city of 2.6 million after a numerous and entrenched Mahdi Army - armed only with a division of troops possessing no heavy firepower and only lightly armored trucks. He wrote:

why was this attacked launched with what looks to be massively insuffucient force levels on the part of the Iraqi Army? Was it pure staff stupidity/buying into your own propaganda that the JAM is a bunch of thugs with no popular support? Was it that the 14th Division was the only reliable division? Was it a hope that the introduction of a large force would destablize the local equilibriums of power and thus prompt local Badr and Fadillah militia attacks?

Fester called me this evening to discuss these questions and we settled on a combination of "the 14th Division was the only reliable division" - it's recruited in Basra, commanded by SIIC loyalists and has been based in Kerbala until now - and an option he hadn't considered - that Maliki planned to draw the US into the fight on his side and move his own troops back into a PR/reserve position at the earliest opportunity.

Maliki christened his offensive the "Charge of the Knights" - and in chess, beloved game of all in the region, knight's move to come at the enemy from unexpected directions. By failing to commit enough forces to fight the Mahdi Army, his operation is certain to need rescuing if his government is not to fall in turn. The US cannot, with the best will in the world, commit more than a brigade or maybe three. That's way not enough to take on a force like the Mahdi Army in a city the size of basra through boots on the ground - and so firepower, bombs and shells will be pressed into service to do the work of the missing boots. Can we say "massive collateral damage?"

What better way not only to wreck the Sadrist's plans to reduce Maliki's SIIC allies to a minority power in the regional elections but also to drive a massive wedge between Sadr and Petreaus? The latter had been careful, of late, to refer to Sadr by the honorific "Seyed" and to credit his ceasefire with a large chunk of reductions in Iraqi violence. Maliki must have felt Mookie breathing down his neck from two directions.

Well, soon no longer. The Washington Post reports that US troops are already involved in Basra.

U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.

Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of American weapons, along with the Mahdi Army's AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.

The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday.

And, according to the WaPo, the folks in the White House have been trying to figure out what Maliki's been up to as well.

Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials. With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.

In Basra, three rival Shiite groups have been trying to position themselves, sometimes through force of arms, to dominate recently approved provincial elections.

The U.S. officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record, said that they believe Iran has provided assistance in the past to all three groups -- the Mahdi Army; the Badr Organization of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Iraq's largest Shiite party; and forces loyal to the Fadhila Party, which holds the Basra governor's seat. But the officials see the current conflict as a purely internal Iraqi dispute.

Some officials have concluded that Maliki himself is firing "the first salvo in upcoming elections," the administration official said.

"His dog in that fight is that he is basically allied with the Badr Corps" against forces loyal to Sadr, the official said. "It's not a pretty picture."

As long as Maliki has the US to back him up, and power is more important to him than stability, this is a big gamble he cannot afford not to make. Sure, if he succeeds he gets a Sadrist insurrection. But that just means he can - delay the November elections in Sadrist areas indefinitely, citing the emergency and so prop up his SIIC allies and thus his own rule; count on US troops being around for a while as they won't be able to withdraw if there's more violence, rather than less, in coming months; put paid once and for all to any chance of reproachment between the US military and Sadr. On the minus side, there's a slim chance the Mahdi Army might mount a Hezboullah-style upset and a rather larger chance that the cat-herder, Sistani, might join with Iraqi parliamentarians who are already saying Maliki should heed Sadr's call for a negotiated settlement. If Sistani backs Sadr on this, Maliki is toast and so is his government, with Sadr garnering enough backing to become de-facto Iraqi leader almost overnight. But if he did nothing, that's going to happen anyway come November. Maliki doesn't have a choice if he wants to retain power.

For Sadr, the stakes are the destruction of his carefully built up social and political infrastructure, more than his militia. There's no way SIIC would stop at just defeating the Mahdi Army, they'd want Sadr's whole operation destroyed or disabled to the point where it's no longer a threat. Sadr knows the US military likely has the firepower, if not the troop numbers, to do the first and his Shiite enemies will do the second as soon as the first step is out of the way. If he can negotiate a settlement, especially if Sistani backs it, he wins in the same way that maliki, Dawa and SIIC lose above.

For the US, it's a bit of a lose-lose. If they use massive firepower instead of boots, they'll incur the wrath of much of the Shiite South well beyond the Sadrists. It will be Anbar at its worst, writ large, and this time lying athwart the main route of supply. If they lose in battle to a Hezboullah-style resistance, same again.

And over the US' shoulder, there are several other problems all looking to come to a head at once. There's the increasingly disaffected Sunni Awakening, threatening a general strike or even a return to their insurgent ways in the face of Maliki's refusal to accomodate them (ironically, Sadr would be far more likely to conduct the outreach that needs). Then there's the Kurds and the brewing blood-feud over who owns Kirkuk. And finally, when the ground in the Northern mountains thaws in April and May, the Turks are looking to follow up their recent reconnaisance in force with a proper armored incursion on the hunt for PKK terrorists. There's a very real prospect here of chaotically and accidentally converging currents creating a perfect storm for the US occupation and for peace in Iraq.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Knight's Move:


The comments to this entry are closed.



Use an online petition to get help in promoting your cause



Students - unlimited, free, online storage for your class notes! Share with Study Buddies, and get instant updates just like Facebook, when buddies add new notes. Claim your free membership to StudyUp today!


Are you concerned with the current state of the U.S. economy? Get a free investment education and take control of your financial future at TeenAnalyst today.


Click here to visit
Powell's Books!


Follow Us On Twitter







Powered by TypePad

Mark Twain and The Colonel:Samuel L.Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century
By Philip McFarland
Reading Now

The Trust
Fiction By Norb Vonnegut
Read Ron's Review

The RX Factor
Fiction By J. Thomas Shaw
Read Ron's Review

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation
By Deborah Davis
Read Ron's Review

We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran
By Aria Minu-sepehr
Read Ron's Review

The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America--And Spawned a Global Crisis
By Michael W. Hudson
Read Ron's Review

The Collapse of Complex Societies
By Joseph Tainter
Read Ron's Review

Crossing Zero: The Afpak War at the Turning Point of American Empire
By Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald
Reading Now

Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values And Vision
By George Lakoff
Read Steve's Review

Invisible History:Afghanistan's Untold Story
By Paul Fitzgerald & Elizabeth Gould
Read Ron's Review

The Day We Found The Universe
By Marcia Bartusiak
Read Ron's Review

Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate
By Stephen H Schneider
Read BJ's Review

Ayn Rand And The World She Made
By Anne C. Heller
Read Ron's Review

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
By Richard Dawkins
Read BJ's Review

Thomas W. Benton-Artist/Activist
By Daniel Joseph Watkins
Read Ron's Review