In testimony before Congressional committees last
week, Gen. David Petraeus portrayed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's late
March offensive in Basra as a poorly planned effort that departed from what
US officials had expected.
What Petraeus did not reveal is that al-Maliki was deliberately upsetting a
Petraeus plan to put US and British forces into Basra for a months-long operation
to eliminate the Mahdi Army from the city.
Petraeus referred to a plan for an operation to be carried out in Basra that
he and his staff had developed with the head of the Basra Operational Command,
Gen. Mohan al-Furayji. But Petraeus carefully dodged a question from Sen. Hillary
Clinton about what resources he was planning to deploy to Basra and over what
length of time.
Clinton evidently suspected that the plan envisioned the deployment of US
troops on a large scale in the Shiite south, despite the fact that the Iraqi
government is supposed to be responsible for security there. Petraeus responded
vaguely that it was "a phased plan over the course of a number of months
during which different actions were going to be pursued."
Reports in the British press indicated, however, that the campaign plan was
based on the assumption that British and US troops would play the central
role in an effort to roll up the Mahdi Army in Basra. The Independent reported
Mar. 21 that Gen. Furayji had publicly declared there would be a "final
battle" in Basra, probably during the summer, and that Britain had already
promised to provide military forces for the campaign. It quoted "senior
government sources" as saying that Prime Minister Gordon Brown's earlier
pledge to cut the number of British troops in the south from 4,100 to 2,500
would "almost certainly be postponed until at least the end of the year".
Two days later, the Sunday Mirror quoted a "senior US military source"
as saying that the "coalition" would turn its attention to Basra once
the "huge operation" in Mosul against al-Qaeda and nationalist Sunni
insurgents was completed, and that the US was prepared to redeploy "thousands"
of US marines to Basra, if necessary.
This plan for a major foreign troop deployment to the south for the first time
since the US battles against the Mahdi Army in April 2004 did not sit well
with al-Maliki. In 2006 and 2007, he had repeatedly blocked US proposals that
US and Iraqi forces target Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Baghdad as well
as in the south.
When Vice President Dick Cheney, who had previously played the "bad cop"
in the George W. Bush administration's relations with al-Maliki, visited Baghdad
in mid-March, one of his objectives was to get al-Maliki to go along with the
Petraeus plan to eliminate the commanding position of Sadr's forces in Basra.
Al-Maliki has told Iraqi officials that Cheney put pressure on him to go along
with the Basra operation, according one Iraqi source.
After Cheney met briefly with al-Maliki Mar. 17, he discussed the "security
situation" with Sadr's Shiite rival, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme
Islamic Iraqi Council, which has been pushing for the destruction of the Mahdi
Army. Cheney lavished praise on Hakim, whom he ostentatiously called "my
friend", for "working so hard with the United States and with Iraq's
other leaders to advance the cause of Iraq's freedom and democracy." The
signal of the Bush administration's intentions toward Sadr could hardly have
The Cheney visit apparently mobilized al-Maliki, but not in the way Cheney
Four days later, when Petraeus met with al-Maliki's national security adviser
Mowaffak al-Rubaie to talk about the US campaign plan for Basra, al-Rubaie
warned Petraeus that al-Maliki had a different plan. Petraeus was apparently
told that the operation would last from a week to 10 days -- not the several
months envisioned in the Petraeus plan.
The main point of al-Maliki's operation, however, was that it would exclude
US troops. As al-Maliki explained in an interview with CNN correspondent Nic
Robertson Apr. 7, he had demanded that US and British troops stay out of Basra,
"because that would give an excuse to some militant groups to say that
this is a foreign force attacking us."
al-Maliki thus feared that a confrontation between thousands of US and British
troops and the Mahdi Army would further inflame the feelings of Shiites in the
south about the occupation, with which his own regime has been so tightly linked.
The Shiite south has become the most anti-occupation region in the country.
The British polling firm ORB, which has been doing opinion surveys in Iraq since
2005, found in March that 69 percent of respondents in the south believed security
would improve if foreign troops were withdrawn, and only 10 percent believed
it would get worse.
When al-Maliki met with Petraeus the following morning, according to Petraeus's
spokesman, Petraeus warned against sending "a couple of brigades"
into the city, suggesting that he did not consider the scale of the operation
to be large enough. Nevertheless, when al-Maliki told him the decision to launch
an operation in Basra had already been made and that it would begin in three
days, Petraeus agreed to support it.
When the Basra operation became an obvious disaster, however, Washington officials
began to question al-Maliki's motives. On the third day of the operation, as
Bush administration officials were reassessing what they described as "a
rapidly deteriorating situation in southern Iraq", one official told the
Washington Post's Peter Baker they were comparing conspiracy theories about
why al-Maliki had acted so precipitously.
Although that comment was not explained, it clearly implied that al-Maliki
was deliberately undermining the US objective of eliminating the Mahdi Army
by using US and British troops.
Bush administration suspicions of al-Maliki's intentions could not have been
eased by the fact that a delegation of pro-government parties traveled to Iran
to ask the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to negotiate
a ceasefire with the Mahdi Army. That ploy move, which did result in a tenuous
ceasefire, raised the possibility that al-Maliki intended from the beginning
that the outcome of the Basra operation would be a new agreement that would
prevent the deployment of US and British troops to fight the Mahdi Army during
Bush administration officials have been asserting that the most important thing
about the Basra operation is that al-Maliki is now convinced that Iran is really
an enemy rather than a friend. But al-Maliki's Apr. 7 interview with CNN's Robertson
made it clear that he has not budged from his position that his government's
interests lie in an accord between Iran and the United States -- not in taking
sides against Iran.
"We will always reject the idea of any side using Iraq as a launching
pad for its attack on others," said al-Maliki. "We reject Iran using
Iraq to attack the US, and at the same time we reject the idea of the US
using Iraq to attack Iran..."
(Inter Press Service)