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March 28, 2008

Heads Up
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

You'd think installing the guy and having 150,000 troops there to underwrite his government would at least buy American forces a heads up. You'd be wrong

Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials.

Well, then at the very least, you'd think that with 150,000 troops stationed in Iraq, the Administration would have some idea of what is going on.  You'd be wrong.

With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.

Well, then you'd assume that if Maliki  decided to do this without giving any real indication to the U.S. government, we aren't actually going to get our troops involved in the fray.  Wrong again.

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.

Well, I guess things really are taking a bad turn in Iraq.  Actually, you're wrong about that to.

The words from Dayton were "remarkable" and "victory" and "rebirth."  "Normalcy," President Bush said, "is returning back to Iraq."

"Culture of dependency" isn't just a talking point invented by opponents of the war.  It's a way of life for the Iraqi government.  They do stupid things that put our troops at risk for their own political benefit because they know that American troops will step into the breech and cover their asses. 


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Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials.

Despite these claims, I'm having trouble believing this.

While I agree with the tenor of this post, it is unlikely that American actions around Sadr City and the rocketing of the Green Zone are unrelated. Moreover the dispersal of American forces under Gen. Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy has created many more points of contact between American units and Mahdi militiamen around Sadr City, making it difficult for US units to remain "in the background" as far as Baghdad is concerned.

Having said that, it apparently is the case that American forces are now reacting to a situation that developed without their being extensively consulted by the Maliki government. There are good reasons for that government to want to assert a greater degree of control in Basra, but they are not necessarily our reasons. If there is a culture of dependency in Iraq now, it's a culture with a two-way street; the Iraqi government depends on American power, and the Americans depend on the Iraqi government as to how that power is to be used.

Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials.

I think a bit of skepticism is warranted here. Especially considering a few issues:

1. Iraqi generals were talking about an imminent attack on Basra for some time, as quoted in a March 20th article (days before the actual assualt).

2. The attack came directly after a Cheney face-to-face with ISCI's Hakim. I suppose that was just coincidence?

At the very least, there should be grains of salt distributed to your readers.

Eric and Dan,

I don't buy the Cheney theory. If the quid pro-quo had been given, don't you think he would have asked ISCI to wait until after Petraeus's testimony? Why would the Administration give the go ahead for a high risk operation like this two weeks before the hearings?

It's a good question, Ilan. This is just some speculation that I posted earlier this morning at Matt Yglesias's site, but this renewed fighting is all occurring at a time when the Bush administration is negotiating the terms for an enduring US presence in Iraq. And some US military leaders in Iraq have already used this crisis to suggest that planned troop drawdowns might have to be deferred.

Maybe the administration concluded that the surge was working just a bit too well? With Sadr sticking to his truce and the violence down, and the "Sons of Iraq" growing more and more accustomed to life on the US dole, the case for the US military staying in Iraq forever was starting to disappear. Perhaps someone decided it was time to provoke Sadr's people and draw him out, so as to provide the rationale for a continued, more-or-less permanent, US military presence in Iraq?

I also wonder whether the point here was never really to defeat the Sadrists in battle, but simply to draw them into some firefights where they are clearly fighting as an illegal, rogue militia. This might provide a legal pretext for disqualifying Sadrist parties or lists from the upcoming elections. So long as Sadr is well-behaved, what basis would there be for excluding him?

Finally, I guess my darkest conspiracy theory is that this is part of a continued effort to manufacture a pretext for action against Iran. Some of Cheney's other road trip stops seemed geared in that direction. Every time a Mehdi Army faction fires off a rocket, or so much as lights a firecracker, Petraeus's office is going to say that the weapons, or the training, or the money, or the spiritual and emotional support came from Iran. The US government has already been remarkably adept at getting the US media to swallow the line that Iran is heavily backing its Iraqi nationalist Sadrist opponents, rather than its real allies: ISCI, Da'wa and the Iraqi government.

It would not have, unless it judged the risks not to be that high. And a lot depends, to coin a phrase, on what the meaning of "it" is.

If "it" means the administration, acting on an idea presented by the Iraqi government after thoroughly briefing everyone in the military chain of command, the Baghdad Embassy, and the relevant people in the White House and State Department, Maliki's move against the Sadrists in Baghdad would likely have been judged high-risk indeed, because of the Mahdi Army's record of responding to violence elsewhere in Iraq with violence on the borders of its base in Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad. On the other hand, if "it" means the Vice President speaking to the Iraqis on his own on behalf of the administration, American policy might have been based de facto on very different assumptions.

I'm not saying the Basra operation was Cheney's idea; in fact, I'd be amazed if that were the case. I would not be amazed if he responded to an idea from Maliki and his Shiite factional allies without consulting widely within the administration, because he has done this kind of thing before. Cheney's record of assessing risk, and of predicting Iraqi actions, is not wonderful.


I'll respond on AmFoot. Thanks for engaging these questions btw.

"I don't buy the Cheney theory. If the quid pro-quo had been given, don't you think he would have asked ISCI to wait until after Petraeus's testimony? Why would the Administration give the go ahead for a high risk operation like this two weeks before the hearings?"

Posted by: Ilan Goldenberg | March 28, 2008 at 01:30 PM

And why NOT, Ilan? Given the general unpopularity of the Iraq occupation in the US, it's not unreasonable (given their record over the last five years) to expect the Bush Administration to try to manipulate public opinion as much as possible. And testimony from their favorite witness, St. David the Martial is as first-quality "manipulation" as they can muster. Having Gen. Petraeus pre-scheduled to testify can easily be seen as a great opportunity for the Administration.
He testifies to peaceful progress toward settling Iraq's problems: great! He testifies to the success of the "Basra Offensive": even better! He testifies that Iraq is (still) in chaos? - no sweat: excuses for troop drawdowns just vanished! Win-win-win!

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