Morning Report: March 26, 2008

Iraq resists Iranian control.

Roggio at LWJ: Iraq Security Forces battle Mahdi Army. Long War Journal:
BAGHDAD, IRAQ: The cease-fire extension issued by Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army, appears to be in jeopardy after the Iraqi government has launched an offensive against the Shia terror group in the southern city of Basra. Dubbed Operation Knights' Assault, Iraqi security forces have gone on the offensive to wrest control of the strategic oil hub and Iraq's second largest city from Mahdi Army control. The fighting has spread to Baghdad and the southern provinces.

The Knights' Assault is an Iraqi-led operation, and was ordered directly by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who is in Basrah to direct the operation along with Interior Minister Jawad Bolani. Basrah has seen an uptick in Iranian-backed terror activity since the British withdrew from the city late last year. Political assassinations and intimidation campaigns have been on the rise as the Iranian work to extend their influence in the oil-rich city.

At least 18 Iraqis were killed, including three policemen, and more than 100 wounded in fighting in the southern city on Tuesday, as Iraqi troops advance to clear neighborhoods controlled by the Mahdi Army. Fighting is reported to have broken out in Baghdad and Al Kut in Wasit province. Curfews have been imposed in Karbala, Wasit, Babil, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, and Basrah after fighting between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi security forces broke out in the South. ...

Steve Schippert at TW: Sadr speaks from the gopher hole. ThreatsWatch:
No sooner do I write that there are “no attributions of direct quotes, commands or comment from Muqtada since the Shi’a militia uprising began in earnest” than we ‘hear’ from Muqtada that he threatens a civil revolt in Iraq….sort of. It is a logistical challenge to personally address one’s followers in Najaf, Iraq when one is busy shuttling between Qom and Tehran in Iran.

But Sadrist lawmakers and officials denounced the (US/Iraqi coalition) offensive and said they felt the government is targeting the Sadr organization, which is a powerful political force in southern Iraq.
The cleric’s [al-Sadr’s] aide Hazem Al-Aaraji read a statement on behalf of Sadr, demanding and end to the operation.

He said Sadr’s group was calling for a nationwide strike, and then if the Iraqi government does not comply, he said, “the second step will be civil disobedience in Baghdad and other provinces.” He said after that would come a “third step,” but did not say what it would be.

Two things: First, Sadr does not want to raise his head from the gopher hole, which is a wise precautionary measure. It’s pretty clear that Petraeus does not play games for political consumption (such as the decision to allow Sadr to survive a deathmatch he declared in 2004). It’s also clear that the (largely Shi’a) Iraqi Army and police forces are shooting to kill.

Second, Sadr’s gopher hole is, after all, in Iran. Having a statement read is what leaders do when they either want to remain in the shadows or are not present to make such. In this case, it’s a bit of both most likely. Keep in mind that anyone could have written (or directed the writing of) the statement read. ...

Iraq closes Basra/Khuzestan (Ahwaz) border. Via SKF, a site dedicated to news about Iran's ethnic Arabs discloses that the Iraqi government has closed the border between Basra and Iran's Khuzestan province, indicating that it sees Tehran's hand in militia-led terrorism in Iraq.
Iraqi troops have begun a campaign against the Mehdi Army of Shia extremist Moqtada al-Sadr. Mehdi Army leaders have been arrested, prompting al-Sadr to call for nation-wide civil disobedience. Weapons and improvised explosive devices have been seized in raids. Iran is suspected of being the source of weapons and explosives used by militias in Iraq.

Khuzestan, known as Al-Ahwaz by its indigenous Ahwazi Arab inhabitants, is a major supply route for arms entering Iraq from Iran. Iran has militarised the border region and ethnically cleansed Arab residents to secure its hold on Iraqi militias and direct terrorist attacks inside Iraq. Iraqi militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas group have been mobilised to quash all dissent among Ahwazi Arabs both inside Iran and throughout the Gulf region. This has included the assassination of Ahwazi Arab leaders. The regime has also sought to intimidate Iraqi and British forces. In 2006, it kidnapped Iraqi coast guards in the Shatt al-Arab, which forms the border between Basra and Khuzestan. The kidnapping of British naval personnel in 2007 was inextricably linked to the regime's long-term ambition to impose its territorial control over the strategic waterway and hold Baghdad hostage to its interests.

After receiving documents leaked from the Fajr Garrison in Ahwaz, the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS) warned three years ago that the militarisation of Khuzestan was establishing the region as a base for terrorist operations inside Iraq. ...

For a Beijing Olympics boycott. Jonathan Quong guest-blogs at Norm Geras and demolishes Norm's well-intentioned arguments against a boycott.

Briefly noted. A big mazal tov to Robert Avrech on the birth of a granddaughter. May you have much simchas and nachas.

Commentary. As we saw yesterday, the departure of Admiral Fallon ("presented to the American public as the one sane mind between a dangerous Bush Administration and conflict with Iran", as Schippert says) may signal that the Administration is feeling more confident about confronting Iran. It's about damn time.

The Belmont Club asks, "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. ...

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.

This, needless to say, is a really big deal. But I want to focus for a moment on Richard's point that "it is not a Sunni-Shia affair." How many times have we heard liberal "intellectuals" pontificating on the importance of understanding the nuances of Sunni versus Shi'a Islam? How eager they are to trot out their erudition on the manifold complexity of the Islamic faith, in pointed contrast to us hawkish ignoramuses who surely don't know one kind of Islam from the other. But as we've seen again and again, everything doesn't reduce to Sunni/Shi'a, and making the supposed Shi'a/Sunni split the focus of everything is itself simplistic and ignorant.