Iraq After Basra

The trumpeted success of the Bush administration’s surge was built on flimsy foundations. They were, principally, the employing of the Sunni resistance to fight al-Qaeda, effectively bribing a large section of the Sunni resistance to stop attacking the U.S.; Muqtada al-Sadr’s unilateral cease-fire, which temporarily silenced the Mahdi Army; and the fact that a great many areas formerly prone to sectarian violence had already been cleared of Sunnis or Shia. All of these conditions were provisional. Seemingly unaware of the Iraqi prime minister’s tenuous position, Bush supported Nouri al-Maliki’s disastrous attack on Sadr’s Madhi Army in Basra at the end of March.

Bush celebrated the siege of Basra as “a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq” that would bring “America closer to a key strategic victory in the war against the extremists and radicals.” Just as with previous proclamations like “Mission Accomplished,” this new “defining moment” turned out to be precisely the opposite of what the U.S. and its puppet Iraqi government intended. Sadr withstood the attack, and it took Iran, the U.S. archenemy in the Middle East, to save the Iraqi government by brokering a cease-fire.

At the very moment General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, and Republican presidential candidate John “one hundred years of war” McCain were hailing the success of the surge before Congress, the assault heightened political and military conflicts between and among Iraq’s three main communities—Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds.

The U.S. precipitates intra-Shia civil war

Contrary to U.S. propaganda that the Maliki government organized the assault on its own, the U.S. played a key role in its design and execution. “No significant Iraqi military action,” argues analyst Gareth Porter, “can be planned without a range of military support functions being undertaken by the U.S. command…. Furthermore, the embedded role of the U.S. Military Transition Teams makes it impossible that any Iraqi military operation could be planned without their full involvement.”

The U.S. and the Maliki government opted to attack Sadr in Basra to secure their control over Basra’s oil fields and the port and to eliminate the Sadrists as competitors in the October provincial elections—with an eye toward the neoliberal reconstruction of the oil industry and wider economy.

The Sadrists’ parliamentary faction had supported the Maliki government and had ministers in his government. But the Sadrists, who are Iraqi nationalists with deep roots among the Shia poor, split from the Shia United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) controlled by Maliki’s Dawa Party and Abdel-Azziz al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), whose base is the Shia elite.

Dawa and ISCI opted to support U.S. plans for an extended occupation, the new oil law (not yet passed) that would open up Iraq’s oil industry to foreign and private investment, and the soft partition of Iraq with a weak central government. In response, the Sadrists withdrew from the government and denounced the Dawa/ISCI government as collaborators who were failing to address the demands of the Iraqi masses for independence, a strong central government and improved living conditions. Dawa and ISCI were therefore itching for a fight with Sadr.

ISCI and Dawa had a further interest in proving to the U.S. that they were willing and capable of liquidating the Sadrists. Ibrahim Sumydai, a former Iraqi intelligence officer and analyst, argues, “The Shiite parties saw the growing cooperation between the Sunnis and the Americans and started to fear maybe the Americans will turn and give power back to the Sunnis. The other Shiite parties wanted to prove that they are still America’s closest allies in Iraq, so they attacked the Madhi Army.”

The U.S. and Maliki foolishly underestimated the Sadrists’ strength, unity, and popular support and thought they were in a position to eliminate his forces. They wrongly thought that Sadr’s declaration of a cease-fire in August 2007 and its renewal in February 2008 were signs of weakness. Moreover, they mistakenly believe that they had split Sadr from his “criminal and extremist militias,” including those in Basra.

In fact, Sadr used the cease-fire to consolidate, unify, and strengthen the Madhi Army with the help of Iranian weapons and training. As one of his commanders told the Canadian Press, “We are better organized, have better weapons, command centers, and easy access to logistical and financial support.” Moreover, Maliki and the U.S. underestimated the widespread support Sadr gained by breaking with the UIA and agitating against the occupation and poverty.

After the British were driven from Basra, a three-cornered fight developed among the ISCI with its Badr Brigades, Fadhila with its militia the Oil Protection Force, and Sadr’s Madhi Army for control of the city and its crucial oil fields. While ISCI and Fadhila won political control of the city and Shia south in the 2005 provincial elections, the Madhi Army controls the city itself through its forces and social services.

Over 20 percent of Iraq’s oil is pumped out of Basra’s wells and 90 percent of its oil exports are sent out of Basra’s port. It is therefore a major strategic prize for the U.S. and the Iraqi government. Right before the attack, Vice President Cheney visited Iraq to push for the new oil law. Moreover, as the siege of Basra occurred, Chevron, Exxon, and British Petroleum were negotiating with the Iraqi Oil Ministry for contracts on the Rumaila oil field near Basra.

The U.S. decision to hold provincial elections in October was the final precipitant of the battle of Basra. They pursued these elections to appease demands for political inclusion from the Sunni Awakening Councils—the militias of former resistance fighters recruited by the U.S. to fight al-Qaeda—whose forces boycotted the last provincial election and therefore are not represented in their own strongholds. However, the U.S. along with ISCI and Dawa feared that Sadrists, who also boycotted the 2005 provincial elections, would sweep the Shia south as well as Baghdad.

The victors of the provincial elections will decide on the proposal from ISCI and Dawa and their Kurdish collaborators for the soft-partitioning of Iraq into ethnic and sectarian super-provinces—Kurdish in the North, Sunni in Anbar, and Shia in the South—with a weak central government. However, the Sadrists as well as the Sunnis favor a strong central government, oppose the oil law, and demand a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. So, if the Sadrists were allowed to sweep the October elections, they would likely win control of the Shia areas, challenging the U.S. occupation and its neoliberal economic plans.

The U.S., ISCI, and Dawa were therefore determined to eliminate Sadr and his Mahdi forces as their principle political opposition before the October elections. As an Iraqi member of parliament stated, “Maliki’s goal is to wipe out the Sadrists before elections because he knows his bloc will lose to them.”

The siege of Basra

Driven by their own illusions and interests, the U.S. and Maliki launched Operation Knights’ Assault with 30,000 soldiers and policemen, most of them ISCI’s Badr Brigade militias in uniform. Maliki declared, “we entered this battle with determination and we will continue to the end. No retreat. No talks. No negotiations.”

The operation turned into a catastrophe for Maliki and the United States. The Mahdi Army fought their forces to a standstill. Over 1,500 government forces refused to fight and turned over their weapons and vehicles to Sadr’s militias. Sadr’s forces struck back with protests in cities throughout the Shia south and even launched attacks on U.S. soldiers and the Green Zone, causing the highest number of U.S. casualties since the start of the surge.

Sadr appeared on Al Jazeera to rally Arab nationalists and all Muslims to expel the U.S. occupiers from Iraq. He declared that “the occupation is trying to divide Sunnis and Shias…. I love the Sunnis. I am Shia, but we are all Iraqis. Iraq is still under occupation and the United States’ popularity is reducing every day, every minute. I call through Al Jazeera, for the departure of the occupying troops from Iraq as soon as possible.”

“The Iraqi people,” he continued, “are suffering just as if they were still under Saddam. The small Satan left and the great Satan came. God willing, the occupation forces will be driven out as happened in Vietnam.”

The Iranian connection

Desperate for a solution, ISCI and Dawa representatives sought out the Iranian government to negotiate a cease-fire and escape from humiliating defeat. “Adding to Bush’s utter humiliation,” the Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss writes, “the Iranian negotiated truce was mediated by the commander of the so-called Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani…. The Quds Force, you will recall, was only last year designated as a ‘terrorist’ entity by the U.S. government. So President Bush’s ‘defining moment’ is this: the head of an Iranian ‘terrorist’ force has brokered a deal between the two leading Shiite parties in Iraq, Sadr’s movement and ISCI.”

Therefore, Sadr and Iran emerged from the battle of Basra as clear victors. Sensing his advantage, Sadr called for a million-strong demonstration demanding an end to the occupation. Neither the U.S. nor the Maliki government could tolerate the Sadrist threat in the run up to the fall elections. They immediately laid siege to Mahdi strongholds in Sadr City, the teeming Shia slum of 2 million. U.S. air and ground support was substantial. Militias likely associated with ISCI killed Sadr’s second in command in the holy city of Najaf. Faced with a reign of terror and streams of refugees fleeing Sadr City, Sadr called off his demonstration.

The U.S. and Maliki won over Sunni and Kurdish representatives to join them in introducing a bill that would require that all political parties disarm their militias or be excluded from the October elections. Of course, the law, if passed, would no doubt be implemented in a completely discriminatory fashion against Sadr’s Mahdi Army and not against ISCI with its Badr Brigades disguised in the police and army, nor the Kurdish parties with their fighters in the Peshmerga. There’s no telling what ISCI and Dawa will do with the various Sunni parties and their connections to the Awakening Councils.

Failure of the surge

The assault on Basra has ended the false calm of the surge and sparked both increasing resistance to the occupation as well as ethnic and sectarian conflict between and among Iraq’s three great communities.

As Vali Nasr, author of The Shi’a Revival, told Time magazine, “The ceasefire and the surge allowed everyone to regroup and rearm. There is still the Shia–Sunni conflict. There is still the Sadr-Badr conflict. The surge and the ceasefire merely kept them apart, but there has never been a real political settlement. No, the big battle for Iraq hasn’t been fought yet. The future of Iraq has not been determined.”

The U.S. and the Maliki government have opened up a period of intra-Shia war against the Sadrists. They will attempt to co-opt Sadr’s moderate wing and crush his militias. But, as the Arab Times reports, “Sadr says he will not enter any political process that would allow U.S. forces to remain in Iraq. Sadr also denounces U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a terrorist and says he will never work with Iraq’s occupiers.” Moreover, despite his overriding strategy of avoiding self-defeating military conflicts with the U.S., Sadr has threatened to call off his cease-fire with the occupation forces and government. As Juan Cole argues, “if the Sadrists are really excluded from civil politics, and they are the majority in the South, then you will have just pushed a majority of Iraqis out of the political process and potentially into civil violence.”

Bush’s decision to subcontract the fight against al-Qaeda to the Sunni tribal leaders has created the conditions for an even more explosive conflict between them and the Shia. The U.S. pays $16 million a month for the services of the Sunni Awakening Councils of 90,000 former resistance fighters. The councils’ tribal leaders are salafists, hard-line fundamentalists who despise not only the U.S., but also the Shia government, which refused to integrate their forces into the Iraq Army; indeed, they consider the Shia to be infidels.

The Guardian newspaper reported in March that there were several strikes among Awakening Council members over inadequate pay and frustration over doing life-threatening dirty work for the U.S. against al-Qaeda. If the U.S. calls off the elections because of the chaos their siege of Basra caused, the tribal leaders could easily renew their guerrilla resistance to the occupation, and their attacks on the Shia.

The ISCI/Dawa plan for soft partition has exacerbated conflicts among Arab Shia and Sunnis and the Kurdish parties. The Sadrists and Sunni forces are both for a strong central government, while disagreeing about its sectarian balance. By contrast, the Kurdish parties want control over the oil rich areas of Kirkuk and Mosul as part of an autonomous Kurdish region. To do so they would have to ethnically cleanse the Arab population as well as the Turkmen minority, something that would provoke Turkey to intervene against Kurdish nationalists and in defense of the Turkmen. With the approach of the provincial elections, all of these sectarian and ethnic conflicts will grow more intense.

To impose their rule over the catastrophe they have wrought, the U.S. has frozen any withdrawals until July to maintain its force at about 140,000. It has also ordered the British troops near Basra to remain in the country. The U.S. and Britain are clearly preparing for further and even more violent assaults on the people of Iraq.

Threatening Iran

Desperate for a new justification for the failing occupation, the Bush administration, General Petraeus, and Ambassador Crocker have turned to blaming Iran for all their problems in Iraq. Both Crocker and Petraeus trumpeted the Awakening Councils’ success against al-Qaeda in Iraq, but they argued that the real threat is Iran, which they claim is fighting a proxy war through so-called special groups inside the Mahdi Army.

This is a complete distortion of reality. The Iraqi opposition to the occupation is home grown, particularly Sadr and Mahdi Army, who have long been critical of Iran and the parties it has controlled—the U.S. allies ISCI and Dawa. Moreover, while Iran has cultivated allies among all the Shia factions, it has played a restraining role. Gareth Porter reports, “Maliki and Supreme Council chief Abdul Aziz al-Hakim publicly dissociated themselves from the U.S. ‘proxy war’ line, insisting that Iran was restraining Sadr rather than egging him on.”

Nevertheless, the Bush administration has increased its threats against Iran. No doubt with U.S. approval, Israel in early April staged one of the largest military exercises in its history with the expressed purpose of preparing a response to attacks from Iran in the event of a U.S. war on Iran.

After the hearings in Washington, the U.S. sent Petraeus, Crocker, and Rice to all the Sunni states in the region to rally them against Iran. As the Washington Post reports, “Maliki’s willingness to go after fellow Shiites attracted support from other political groups in Iraq, including Sunnis and Kurds that have long been suspicious of his sectarian leanings. It also gave Washington a talking point to use with the Sunni Arab governments in the region that have shunned him. ‘It’s an opportunity to make him look better inside Iraq and to make a better argument to the Arabs,’ an official said.”

However much Cheney fantasizes from his bunker about another war, the U.S. is in no position to attack Iran. The U.S. military high command clearly opposes it for fear of breaking its already crisis-ridden military. Admiral William Fallon already resigned over Bush’s decision to deploy the Navy to the Persian Gulf.

Instead of a prelude to war, the Bush administration’s threatening posture and rhetoric aims to bully Iran while conducting behind the scenes negotiations about its nuclear program and its policy in Iraq. George Bush announced his intent “to solve these issues diplomatically. You can’t solve these problems unilaterally. You’re going to need a multilateral forum.” But Bush’s threatening posture could easily tip the volatile situation into military confrontation between the U.S. or Israel and Iran.

The Democrats offer no real solution to the Bush administration’s disastrous policy in Iraq or toward Iran. Despite their antiwar rhetoric, they merely want to rehabilitate U.S. imperialism in the Middle East through better diplomacy, phased withdrawal, and increased military intervention in Afghanistan. More often than not the Democrats join the Bush administration in bashing the Iranian boogeyman. When the rubber hits the road, the Democrats won’t even oppose Bush’s war plans; yet again they have promised to pass the $108 billion emergency war-funding bill that Bush has submitted to Congress.

Resistance, civil war, and chaos

Sadr’s uprising against the U.S. and Iraqi government siege of Basra has certainly undermined the surge. But overall, neither Sadr nor the Iraqi resistance as a whole has produced a nationalist formation able to unite Sunni, Shia, and Kurds against the occupation.

Sunni salafists lead the bulk of the Sunni resistance as well as the Awakening Councils. Many collaborated with anti-Shia bigots in al-Qaeda in Iraq. They envision reclaiming sectarian dominance in a new central government, thereby positioning themselves in opposition to the Shia majority and discounting legitimate Kurdish demands to self-determination.

Sadr has emerged as the paramount Arab Shia Iraqi nationalist. But as left-wing Iraqi exile Sami Ramadani argues,

Sadr’s previous tactics have been strongly criticized for being an obstacle to greater anti-occupation unity. These tactics included on-off participation in the government and the Sadrists’ presence in parliament (within the sect-based coalition list that won most of the seats in the January 2006 occupation-controlled elections). Though his supporter have withdrawn from the government and the sectarian coalition, their tactics have partly contributed to the sectarian climate which they constantly criticize and regard as the main obstacle to unity.

The Kurdish parties have collaborated with the U.S. invasion and occupation to secure their dreams of autonomy within a federated Iraq, a demand that puts them at odds with the Iraqi Arab majority.

Except for the heroic struggle of the Iraq oil workers in Basra and elsewhere for union rights and against the occupation, there is little non-sectarian and multiethnic organization capable of galvanizing a truly nationalist movement that encompasses all the demands of the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds.

Nevertheless, with each passing day, the U.S. occupation makes the situation in Iraq worse—killing its people, increasing sectarian and ethnic conflicts, undermining the economy, and destroying the infrastructure of its society through the unceasing violence provoked by the occupation. In such conditions, Iraqis will struggle to unite their masses and liberate their country.

Our task in the U.S. is to demand immediate withdrawal to free Iraq from colonial occupation and compel the U.S. to pay reparations to the Iraqi people so they can rebuild their society however they see fit.

Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at Read other articles by Ashley.

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on May 2nd, 2008 at 6:32am #

    tactical wins/losses may continue for decades longer but the telos remains.
    what it may be, we do not know; we, perforce, infer it. it is establishment of a fourth state; probably in syrian desert. the other three states would become US protectorates.
    if this is the goal, US may be willing to lose another 50,000 soldiers in order to obtain it.
    what is 50,000 dead to US ruling class? and if the US underclass doesn’t want to fight , US can hire other nationals to fight for the plutocrats. and pay them much less than amers.
    thus i urge iraqis to resist the occupation passively. it may also fail, but appears a better option than to bleed on and on, only to utterly fail.
    this has hap’d to pals. palestine may not ever rise again. thank u