The rhetoric is triumphalist, and the story-line is simple andconsistent.
"We have made up our minds to enter this battle and we willcontinue till the end. No retreat," said Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday. "As we speak Iraqis are waging a tough battle against militia fighters and criminals in Basra, many of whom have receivedarms and training and funding from Iran," said President George W. Bush inDayton, Ohio. But the reality is less persuasive.
The offensive in Basra could only have been launched with thesupport of the United States, since Prime Minister Maliki has admitted thathe "cannot move a company of troops" without American consent. It isreally aimed mainly at the Mahdi army, the militia that backs Moqtadaal-Sadr. And it is not likely to succeed.
Moqtada al-Sadr is the main rival to Maliki's Islamic SupremeCouncil of Iraq and its associated Badr militia for the loyalty of Iraq'sShia majority. Basra is a key battleground for this struggle, not onlybecause its two million people are almost all Shia, but because most ofIraq's oil is produced nearby and exported through Basra. The militias needmoney, and Basra, with its flow of cash and oil, is the best place to creamit off.
The Mahdi and Badr militias have been waging a low-intensity battlein Basra for control of these resources for more than a year, and you cansee why Maliki would want to use the army to tip the balance in favour ofhis side. You can also see why the Bush administration wants Maliki to win,for his party supports -- indeed, depends on -- a continued US militarypresence in Iraq, while Moqtada al-Sadr insists that all US troops go home.But it's harder to see why they thought Maliki could win.
The Mahdi militia in Basra is well enough armed to fight the Iraqiarmy to a stand-still in the narrow streets of the sprawling slums wheremost of its supporters live. Moreover, Maliki has only committed 15,000soldiers to the battle in Basra, which isn't very many given howstreet-fighting swallows up troops. (He also has 15,000 heavily armedpolice available for the battle, in theory, but Basra police have closeconnections with the local militias and cannot be counted on to fightthem.)
At the time of writing, four days into the battle in Basra, theIraqi army's offensive seems to have stalled, while new fronts have openedup in other cities across the south of Iraq and in Baghdad, already thescene of massive protests by Moqtada al-Sadr's supporters. The "ceasefire"that the Mahdi army declared seven months ago, which played a big part inthe apparent success of the American "surge" in troops numbers in Iraq, isfraying badly.
Unless Maliki and the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus,have reliable intelligence that the Mahdi organisation is less united anddetermined than it seems to be, this offensive doesn't make a lot of sense,especially from the point of view of the White House.
As it was, the "surge" looked likely to deliver what the Bushadministration most wanted: an apparent stabilisation in Iraq that wouldlet it leave office without having to admit failure. The more wordly-wisemembers of the administration would initially have seen this simply as adevice to put the ultimate blame for failure on the incoming administrationinstead, but maybe they have started to believe their own propaganda.
The "stabilisation is more apparent than real, for two reasons. Thenew Sunni "allies" of the United States include a lot of people who weretrying to kill American troops a year ago, and may well return to thatactivity once they have dealt with the "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" extremistswho were giving the Sunni resistance a bad name. And on the Shia side,Moqtada al-Sadr was standing by to push out Maliki's American-backedgovernment as soon as US troop numbers in Iraq fell.
Three months ago, cynical advisers to President Bush might havesaid "So what?" The bad things would happen early in the nextadministration, which looked almost certain to be Democratic, and Bushwould get away clean. But now it looks (at least to some Republicans) asthough Senator John McCain has a real chance to win the presidency andcontinue Bush's military commitment in Iraq.
Maybe they said to themselves: let's not leave McCain a tickingtime bomb. Let's go after Moqtada al-Sadr, starting with his cash flow,which depends heavily on his militia in Basra. (Sadr does not get arms ormoney from Iran, and the Bush people must know that despite what they sayin public.) So Maliki got his marching orders, and the battle for Basrabegan.
If this is what happened, it is a classic case of hope triumphingover experience. The Iraqi army probably cannot beat the Mahdi militia inopen battle in Iraq's big cities, and it may be left severely discreditedif it tries. The US army certainly can beat Sadr's militia, just as it hasdone in two previous rounds of fighting, but that would be followed by areversion to the guerilla attacks that were causing such high US casualtiesbefore Sadr's ceasefire.
Or maybe Petraeus and Maliki know something about the weaknesses ofthe Mahdi army that nobody else does. They have about a week to prove it.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.