How far against Sadr?
There question about Operation Knight's Assault, Iraqi PM Maliki's onslaught on the Mahdi Army is how far it will go. Bill Roggio reports that the showdown has been in the works for some time.
The current Iraqi offensive has been in the works for some time. The Iraqi Army and police have been massing forces in the south since August 2007, when the Basrah Operational Command was established to coordinate efforts in the region. As of December the Iraqi Army deployed four brigades and an Iraqi Special Operations Forces battalion in Basrah province. The Iraqi National Police deployed two additional battalions to the province.
DJ Elliott, who has been closely following the buildup of the Iraqi Army has watched it expand over the last year. Of particular relevance were the creation of mobile reserves and improvements in the Iraqi Army's capability to sustain combat operations.
The offensive is almost entirely an all-Iraqi show. British forces, though still in Basra are uninvolved. The International Herald Tribune says "U.S. forces also appeared to play little role in the clashes in Baghdad." Maliki himself toured Basra a few days ago. A Time article by Bobby Ghost speculates on whether Maliki will finish off Sadr as a political force, unlike Iyad Allawi, who crushed Sadr with US help in 2004 only to let him off the hook after intervention by Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
But more than Sistani's intervention saved Sadr's position on that occasion. The US was preoccupied in combating what it felt was the primary threat: al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency. Sadr's political clout after the elections also prevented Maliki from acting against him. But things have changed. Bobby Ghosh writes:
Now Maliki is hoping that the U.S. military's successes against al-Qaeda have also helped Shi'ites feel more secure — and less dependent on the Mahdi Army's protection. He's betting, too, that he has enough support in parliament to risk Sadr's wrath, counting on Kurdish parties to keep his government afloat in the event Sadr's loyalists desert the coalition. The Prime Minister has also been careful to give himself some political wiggle room. His spokesman has said the operation in Basra is not directed at the Mahdi Army, but against unspecified "armed gangs." This allows Maliki to end the offensive at any time, declare victory against the "gangs" and leave the Mahdi Army bloodied but not beaten.
Maliki has already signalled he is willing to talk to any element of the Mahdi Army that is willing to lay down its weapons. The Washington Post reports that "Maliki issued a statement giving gunmen in Basra three days to give up their weapons and renounce further violence. Those who don't, said a Maliki aide, will be targeted for arrest in the ongoing security operation." So the likelihood is that Operation Knight's Assault will end with Sadr's forces diminished, but not eliminated. Sadr himself, hidden out in Iran, will probably survive.
But this doesn't mean it is wholly futile. The fact that operations against the Sadr have been undertaken by the Iraqi Army under a Shi'ite government sends a powerful signal to Iran that this beef is between Baghdad and Teheran. It is not a Sunni-Shia affair nor one in which Washington is the primary belligerent. Iraqi politicians, like every other, are jealous of their power. Iran has in the past tried to run things via Sadr. But now Iraq may be claiming primary power within its borders for itself. Thus, Operation Knight's assault is not only aimed at frustrating Sadr's dream of recreating a Hezbollah-style organization in Iraq, but communicating Iraq's determination to defend its sovereignty internationally.
The next two or three days will reveal whether Sadr can mount an effective response against Maliki; and more importantly how soon the Iraqi PM is willing to call off the dogs. For Sadr the timing of the offensive comes at a time when both Clinton and Obama are preoccupied with their war against each other. Neither candidate has reacted to restrain Maliki, who looks like he will have a few hours yet in which to accomplish whatever goal he has in mind.
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