As it became clear last week that the Operation
Knights Assault in Basra was in serious trouble, the George W. Bush administration
began to claim in off-the-record statements to journalists that Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki had launched the operation without consulting Washington.
The effort to disclaim U.S. responsibility for the operation is an indication
that it was viewed as a major embarrassment just as top commander Gen. David
Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are about to testify before Congress.
Behind this furious backpedaling is a major Bush administration miscalculation
about Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, which the administration believed
was no longer capable of a coordinated military operation. It is now apparent
that Sadr and the Mahdi Army were holding back because they were still in the
process of retraining and reorganization, not because Sadr had given up the
military option or had lost control of the Mahdi Army.
The process of the administration distancing itself from the Basra operation
began on March 27, when the Washington Post reported that administration
officials, speaking anonymously, said that al-Maliki had "decided to launch
the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies." One official claimed,
"[W]e can't quite decipher" what is going on, adding that it was a
question of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki
acted when he did.
On March 30, the New York Times reported from Baghdad that "few
observers in Iraq seem to believe that al-Maliki intended such a bold stroke,"
and that "many say the notoriously cautious politician stumbled into a
The Times quoted a "senior Western official in Baghdad"
the term usually used for the ambassador or senior military commander
as saying, "Maliki miscalculated," adding, "From all I hear,
al-Maliki's trip was not intended to be the start of major combat operations
right there, but a show of force."
The official claimed there were "some heated exchanges between him and
the generals, who out of hurt pride or out of calculation or both then insisted
on him taking responsibility."
These suggestions that it was Maliki who miscalculated in Basra are clearly
false. No significant Iraqi military action can be planned without a range of
military support functions being undertaken by the U.S. command. On March 25,
just as the operation was getting under way in Basra, U.S. military spokesman
Col. Bill Buckner said "coalition forces" were providing intelligence,
surveillance, and support aircraft for the operation.
Furthermore, the embedded role of the U.S. Military Transition Teams (MTTs)
makes it impossible that any Iraqi military operation could be planned without
their full involvement.
A U.S. adviser to the Iraqi security forces involved in the operation told
a Washington Post reporter by telephone on March 25 he expected the operation
to take a week to 10 days.
Operation Knights Assault also involved actual U.S.-Iraqi joint combat operations.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner denied on March 26 that there
were any "conventional" U.S. forces involved in the operation. Only
on March 30 did the U.S. command confirm that a joint raid by Iraqi and U.S.
special forces units had "killed 22 suspected militants" in Basra.
Some observers have expressed doubt that the Bush administration would have
chosen to have Maliki launch such a risky campaign against well-entrenched Shi'ite
militiamen in Basra until after the Petraeus-Crocker testimony had been completed.
But that assumes that Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon recognized
the potential danger of a large-scale effort to eliminate or severely weaken
the Mahdi Army in Basra.
In fact, the Bush administration and the Iraqi military were clearly taken
by surprise when the Mahdi Army in Basra attacked security forces on March 25,
initiating a major battle for the city.
For many months the Bush administration, encouraged by Moqtada al-Sadr's unilateral
cease-fire of last August, had been testing Sadr and the Mahdi Army to see if
they would respond to piecemeal repression by striking back. The U.S. command
and Iraqi security forces had carried out constant "cordon and search"
operations which had resulted in the detention of at least 2,000 Mahdi Army
militiamen since the August cease-fire, according to a Sadrist legislator.
Resistance to such operations by the Mahdi Army had been minimal, and Bush
administration officials attributed Sadr's apparent acquiescence to restraining
Iranian influence and the decline of the Mahdi Army as a fighting force.
At the meeting with Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi July 24, Ambassador
Crocker had held Iran directly responsible for what he called "militia-related
activity that could be attributed to Iranian support." After the Sadr cease-fire,
top officials of the Maliki government as well as rival Shi'ite party leader
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim had told U.S. officials that Iran had intervened to convince
Sadr to end Mahdi Army fighting, presumably because of its desire to stabilize
the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi regime.
In an interview with the Washington Post Dec. 23, David Satterfield,
a senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and coordinator
for Iraq, said the decline in the number of attacks by Mahdi Army militiamen
"has to be attributed to an Iranian policy decision" and suggested
that the policy decision had been made "at the most senior level"
Pentagon officials weren't sure why the Mahdi Army was not fighting back, but
the Los Angeles Times reported Oct. 31 that they hoped both that the
gradual decline in attacks would continue, and such a decline "means that
Iran has heard their warnings." Two weeks later, Maj. Gen. Jim Simmons,
a deputy to Petraeus, said the Iranian "initiatives and commitments"
to withhold weapons "appear to be holding up."
Petraeus, meanwhile, was convinced that the ability of the Mahdi Army to resist
had been reduced by U.S. military actions as well as by its presumed internal
disorganization. His spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, declared in early November,
"As we've gone after that training skill levels amongst the enemy, we've
degraded their capability
Then came Sadr's announcement Feb. 22 that the cease-fire would be extended.
That apparently convinced Petraeus and the Bush White House that they could
now launch a large-scale "cordon and search" operation against the
Mahdi Army in Basra without great risk of a military response.
That assumption ignored the evidence that Sadr had been avoiding major combat
because he was in the process of reorganizing and rebuilding the Mahdi Army
into a more effective force. Thousands of Mahdi Army fighters, including top
commanders, were sent to Iran for training not as "rogue element,"
as suggested by the U.S. command, but with Sadr's full support. One veteran
Mahdi Army fighter who had undergone such training told The Independent
last April that the retraining was "part of a new strategy. We know we
are against a strong enemy and we must learn proper methods and techniques."
Last week a Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City was quoted by the Canadian
Press as saying, "We are now better organized, have better weapons,
command centers, and easy access to logistical and financial support."
The ability of Mahdi Army units in Basra to stop in its tracks the biggest
operation mounted against it since 2004 suggests that Shi'ite military resistance
to the occupation is only beginning. By making that point just before Petraeus'
testimony, Sadr has posed a major challenge to the Bush narrative of military
success in Iraq.
(Inter Press Service)