May 11, 2008

Lion's Roar: Next Stop Mosul

Sunday is normally a day of rest here in the States, but it is shaping up to be a big day in Iraq. The newly brokered ceasefire aimed at ending the fighting in Sadr City between the JAMsters and the coalition and Iraqi forces goes into effect today. This is good news, but we'll have to keep our fingers crossed that it will actually hold given that it appears the two sides are fairly far apart in their interpretations of the pact. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Under the terms announced by Sadr's lead negotiator, Salah Obeidi, the cleric's Mahdi Army militia would put down their weapons and allow government forces to pursue individuals wanted in attacks, provided there is a warrant. In return, the government forces would stop what Obeidi called "random" raids and open blocked roads into the cleric's Baghdad stronghold, Sadr City.

Obeidi said the document made no mention of the government's demand that the militia disband and surrender its medium- and heavy-grade weapons -- issues that the cleric's representatives were not prepared to discuss.

But Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, said all sides had agreed that only the government is authorized to maintain an army and enforce the law.

"The government has the right to raid and search any place that is suspected to contain heavy and medium weapons," he said in a statement.

Obeidi said the agreement allows only Iraqi forces to conduct raids in Sadr City, not the U.S. military. But Dabbagh told The Times that the deal did not address the role of foreign troops, a point underscored by Hadi Amri, a member of the ruling alliance's negotiating team.

"There is no point that prevents the Americans from performing military operations in Sadr City," Amri said. "The U.S. forces are and will continue bombing . . . the places that are launching mortar rounds or rockets at their bases and/or the Green Zone."

Even if the discrepancies can be ironed out, it remains to be seen whether the gunmen who claim allegiance to Sadr will honor the accord.

Hmmm, those are a lot of discrepancies. Dr. iRack looks forward to seeing how they get, um, finessed. And then there is this strange bit from the story: "The U.S. military said it had not been informed of Saturday's truce" before it was reached. WTF?

The NYT is also reporting that, in a replay of Basra, the Iranians helped broker the Sadr City deal.

The Iranians helped end the standoff by throwing their weight behind the government after a delegation of Shiite members of Parliament visited Iran earlier this month, according to three people involved in negotiating the truce. . . .

The visit to Iran by members of Parliament had been cited by the Americans as the first Iraqi effort to confront Iran with evidence of its training, financing and arming of Shiite militias in Iraq. But the trip evolved into a sophisticated political maneuver that could help the Iraqis out of a situation that was taking a rising toll on the country’s political stability.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government announced that the long-anticipated operation to clear Mosul, Iraq's third largest city and an urban area described by the U.S. military as the last major hub for Al Qaeda in Iraq, has begun. An Iraqi armored brigade and Iraqi police, backed by U.S. forces, have kicked-off "Operation Lion's Roar." Again, according to the LA Times, initial operations were focusing on searching homes in several northern Mosul neighborhoods. The BBC also reports that around 10,000 Sunni tribesmen from Mosul, some of whom were formerly aligned with AQI, are taking part in the operation. Thus far there have been no reports of clashes. Last but not least, Maliki, in a reprise of his one-man surge to the front in Basra, has also reportedly traveled to Mosul to oversee the operation. Maliki has repeatedly said that Mosul would represent the "decisive battle" against AQI, and apparently it is his "roar" that he wants AQI to hear.

So it looks like things are really gearing up for a major showdown up north. There are two rival theories about the timing here.

Hypothesis 1: Maliki is strutting his stuff. According to this narrative, which is likely to be the dominant one coming out of MNF-I and the Iraqi government, Maliki has clearly reached a new level of confidence. After initially stumbling in Basra, he managed to turn things around there (with a little Iranian help), and his willingness to go after Shia militants has built up a reservoir of political capital with Sunnis. According to this view, with clashes in Sadr City winding down as a consequence of reaching a ceasefire favorable to the Iraqi government, Maliki is striking while the iron is hot, exploiting his new found cross-sectarian support to go after Sunni groups affiliated with AQI up north.

Hypothesis 2: Maliki needs the troops. Whereas the first hypothesis sees Basra and Sadr City as enabling Mosul, a second theory reverses the causality and suggests that Sadr City was a constraint on Mosul--a constraint that had to be ended before moving on AQI. This line of thinking would suggest that Sadr City had become a quagmire that could not be resolved militarily and was absorbing Iraqi army assets that were needed up north. According to this view, Maliki settled on a ceasefire that was favorable to Sadr to free up resources to shift to Mosul.

Dr. iRack isn't sure which theory he buys yet. He'll be on the look-out for evidence supporting one interpretation over the other.