March 28, 2008

The Battle for Basra: U.S. Forces Take the Lead

The Washington Post is now reporting that U.S. armored units have taken the lead in Sadr City while the Iraqi units -- surprise! -- hang back and let the Americans do the hard fighting:

BAGHDAD, March 27 -- U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.

Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of American weapons, along with the Mahdi Army's AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.

There are obvious dangers here, but none more obvious than the fact that the U.S. is now doing Maliki's dirty work for him (and Iran, and ISCI, and the Badr Brigades) in the run-up to the provincial elections this fall. Now we know this is the prelude to this fall's provincial elections, so why the hell are we getting involved? If that Stryker platoon was just on patrol and started getting fired at and returned fire, okay, but that's not what JAM is saying happened:

Several Mahdi Army commanders said they had been fighting U.S. forces for the past three days in Sadr City, engaging Humvees as well as the Strykers. By their account, an Iraqi special forces unit had entered Sadr City from another direction, backed by Americans, but otherwise the fighting had not been with Iraqis. "If there were no Americans, there would be no fighting," said Abu Mustafa al-Thahabi, 38, a senior Mahdi Army member.

If Abu Muqawama was leading one of those U.S. units into Sadr City past a bunch of Iraqi Army soldiers hanging out on the outskirts, he would not be happy. He would be asking himself a) why is he the one establishing the authority of the Iraqi state and not the Iraqi Army and b) why is he duking it out with a militia with broad popular support so that another Iran-backed political party can win a bigger share of the vote in the fall?

Now Iraqi Army units are calling for U.S. and UK military units to lend direct support in Basra as well.

In Lebanon, in September 1983, the U.S. lent direct support to what it assumed was a national institution, the Lebanese Army, in the battle at Souk el-Gharb. By doing so, it became, in the eyes of the rest of the Lebanese population, just another militia. The U.S. history in Iraq is more complicated, obviously, but what's happening now is the U.S. is throwing our lot in with ISCI in the upcoming elections. And all Abu Muqawama is saying is, there better be a whole lot of quid pro quo going on as well.