BASRA UPDATE….Juan Cole on Basra:

People are asking me the significance of the fighting going on in Basra and elsewhere. My reading is that the US faced a dilemma in Iraq. It needed to have new provincial elections in an attempt to mollify the Sunni Arabs, especially in Sunni-majority provinces like Diyala, which has nevertheless been ruled by the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI]. But if they have provincial elections, their chief ally, the Islamic Supreme Council, might well lose southern provinces to the Sadr Movement. In turn, the Sadrists are demanding a timetable for US withdrawal, whereas ISCI wants US troops to remain. So the setting of October, 2008, as the date for provincial elections provoked this crisis.

I think Cheney probably told ISCI and Prime Minister al-Maliki that the way to fix this problem and forestall the Sadrists coming to power in Iraq, was to destroy the Mahdi Army, the Sadrists’ paramilitary. Without that coercive power, the Sadrists might not remain so important, is probably their thinking. I believe them to be wrong, and suspect that if the elections are fair, the Sadrists will sweep to power and may even get a sympathy vote. It is admittedly a big ‘if.’

This, I think, is the most widely held theory about what’s going on right now: namely that it’s an attempt by Maliki to weaken the Sadrists in the runup to elections in the south. Two comments, though.

First, Cheney’s visit came ten days ago and this operation seems to have been in the planning stages for several weeks. My guess is that the offensive in Basra is Maliki’s idea, not ours, and Cheney merely offered his blessing and a promise of U.S. air/ground support.

Second, I remain slightly mystified that Muqtada al-Sadr continues to make such soothing noises. It seems increasingly unlikely that Maliki is targeting only rogue Sadrist groups, but despite this, “A statement released late Thursday by Sadr’s political office said the cleric remained committed to the cease-fire he imposed on his militia in August.” Does this mean that Sadr does believe Maliki’s claims that he isn’t targeting the Mahdi Army as a whole? Or is there some other calculation going on?

Beats me, but anyone trying to establish some serious Iraq cred should take a crack at (a) explaining what’s really going on here and (b) predicting how it’s all going to turn out. Be sure to show your work. More speculation from Eric Martin here, Fester here, James Joyner here, and Fred Kaplan here.

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