About more than just Iraq
The Ayatollah Sistani has sent a message to the Mahdi Army: "the law is the only authority in the country". The question of whether Sistani would pull Sadr's chestnuts out of the fire in the same way he saved him in his earlier adventures has been answered: not this time.
Sistani spoke through Jalal el Din al Saghier, a senior leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a rival political party to the Sadrist movement. Saghier was clear that Sistani did not sanction the Mahdi Army and called for it to disarm.
"Sistani has a clear opinion in this regard; the law is the only authority in the country," Saghier told Voices of Iraq, indicating Sistani supports Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the government in the effort to sideline the Mahdi Army. "Sistani asked the Mahdi army to give in weapons to the government."
The conflict between Maliki and Sadr was from the beginning a struggle for supremacy within the Shi'ite community in Iraq. It was not, as some have claimed, a kind of entertainment or show of strength staged by the Iranian leadership to demonstrate how they could switch the violence on and off in Iraq. As events as have shown the switch is no longer in Iranian hands.
Amir Taheri in the New York Post claims that that Maliki's actions against Sadr were a spoiling attack timed to break up a "Tet Offensive"-style operation designed to grab headlines in the crucial period before General Petraeus was due to testify before Congress. Teheran was counting on simultaneously seizing key communities in the belief that America would not have the reserves to intervene nor Maliki the nerve to act on his own. It was, Taheri writes,
a gamble that proved too costly. That's how analysts in Tehran describe events last month in Basra. Iran's state-run media have de facto confirmed that this was no spontaneous "uprising." Rather, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tried to seize control of Iraq's second-largest city using local Shiite militias as a Trojan horse. ...
The Iranian plan - developed by Revolutionary Guard's Quds (Jerusalem) unit, which is in charge of "exporting the Islamic Revolution" - aimed at a quick victory. To achieve that, Tehran spent vast sums persuading local Iraqi security personnel to switch sides or to remain neutral.
In an earlier post, I speculated in the comments that Maliki's attack might have been designed to foil a public relations spectacular near the November elections. I wrote on March 31:
if you want speculation, I'll give you some. But it's only speculation, without much of a factual leg to stand on. My guess is Iran was planning something close to November in order to help shift the US elections to the Democrats. McCain was going to run on Iraq, and the Ayatollahs were going to pull the rug right out from under him. For reasons that accorded with Maliki's own self-interest and also with Bush Administration's, the boil had to be lanced now. Think of it as a spoiling attack.
Taheri's article claims the goal of the Iranian-sponsored Tet was far more immediate, designed to exploit the gap left by the British withdrawal before it could be filled by newly-raised Iraqi battalions. In this space they would run rampage. Then, according to Taheri, they hoped the Najaf clergy would broker a ceasefire to freeze the gains which Sadr's militia hoped to gain in the first hours of surprise. Unfortunately for Sadr, Maliki struck first. And as in boxing, no punch hurts so much as the haymaker that beats the one you were in the process of throwing. Taheri writes:
Tehran's decision to make the gamble was based on three assumptions:
* Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wouldn't have the courage to defend Basra at the risk of burning his bridges with the Islamic Republic in Iran.
* The international force would be in no position to intervene in the Basra battle. The British, who controlled Basra until last December, had no desire to return, especially if this meant getting involved in fighting. The Americans, meanwhile, never had enough troops to finish off al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, let alone fight Iran and its local militias on a new front.
* The Shiite clerical leadership in Najaf would oppose intervention by the new Iraqi security forces in a battle that could lead to heavy Shiite casualties.
Thus the refusal of Sistani to intervene -- worse still his statement that "the law is the only authority in the country" -- meant the end of JAM's last hope. Sadr can no longer hope for salvation by listening for the bell. Any bells that he hears are ringing in his head.
But Sadr is really small potatoes though the many newspapermen perversely think of him as the uncrowned king of Iraq, and the "winner" of the recent confrontation. What recent events really signify is that Maliki, not Iran's Khamenei, is the master of southern Iraq, or at least that the control of southern Iraq is now in dispute between the two. This means that there are now two political power centers in the Shi'ite arc. One center is based in Teheran and the other is based in Iraq. While the hard reality of a properous Kurdistan and the presence of a Sunni population whose insurgency was only so recently beaten (and which may flare up upon provocation) means that the Shi'ites can never control all of Iraq, southern Iraq is now the locus of an alternative polity within Shi'ism. Thus, Iran's failed gamble is not only a foreign defeat for the Qods; it is a domestic political setback for the theocracy.
Because the stakes are so high Iran has no choice but to lick its wounds and try again. This is one fight Teheran really can't afford to lose. As Amir Taheri says, "this was just the first round. The struggle for Iraq isn't over." The second round, when it comes, will probably be a variation of the "Tet" strategy, just as this was.
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