What’s Going on in Basra?….Chapter XLII

WHAT’S GOING ON IN BASRA?….CHAPTER XLII….Here’s the latest entry in the “What’s going on in Basra?” sweepstakes. Earlier today Muqtada al-Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf released a statement, and Erica Goode of the New York Times provides the backstory:

The substance of the nine-point statement, released by Mr. Sadr on Sunday afternoon, was hammered out in elaborate negotiations over the past few days with senior Iraqi officials, some of whom traveled to Iran to meet with Mr. Sadr, according to several officials involved in the negotiations.

….Iraqi forces, backed up by American war planes and ground troops, have been in a stalemate with Shiite militias affiliated with Mr. Sadr in Basra for the past six days, in a military operation that has stirred harsh criticism of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

….Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the campaign and that he is now in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival and now his opponent in battle, for a solution to the crisis.

In the statement, Mr. Sadr told militia members “to end all military actions in Basra and in all the provinces” and “to cooperate with the government to achieve security.”

But he also made demands, including an amnesty for fighters in the Mahdi Army militia and the release of all imprisoned members of the Sadrist movement who have not been convicted of crimes. While the government has occasionally made small-scale releases of Sadrists, it has resisted earlier demands for more sweeping action.

Italics mine. If this is accurate, it suggests that it was Maliki who went to Sadr, not the other way around, and that he did it several days ago. What’s more, it was Sadr who laid down the conditions for an end to the violence, not Maliki. This is pretty plainly at odds with the theory that Sadr’s statement was a show of weakness, a sign that he was taking more damage than he could stand and was desperate for a truce.

In urban warfare like this it’s frequently hard to figure out who’s “won” and who’s “lost.” Often both sides lose. In this case, though, it certainly looks as if Maliki has lost more than Sadr. Both sides have taken casualties, but Sadr doesn’t appear to have lost any ground; he’s forced Maliki to come to him to ask for terms; he’s successfully projected a statesmanlike image throughout; and politically he seems to be in stronger shape than before. Maliki, conversely, appears by all accounts to have launched an ill-timed mission with inadequate troops and then been unable to close the deal. The Iraqi army and the redoubtable Gen. Mohan al-Furayji, the much lauded leader of the regular forces in Basra, are both looking pretty banged up in the bargain too.

This could all change tomorrow, but right now that’s about where we stand. It’s increasingly hard to see how the Basra offensive ends up being a plus for Maliki and his allies. Including us, unfortunately.

UPDATE: Reed Hundt points out that there’s a Tet Offensive quality to the operation in Basra: “Even if the American-backed Maliki-led government establishes some sort of order in Basra, Baghdad and other cities, the battles of the last week must have shaken the American media into a recognition that there’s no peace at hand in Iraq, and certainly no widespread support for the Maliki government.”

Maybe so. On the other hand, perhaps there’s a bright side to this? The failure of a major offensive might finally convince Maliki and his allies that Sadr isn’t going away and can’t be defeated militarily. That might, in turn, convince them that they need to negotiate seriously with Sadr — and perhaps with the Sunni coalition as well — if they want to maintain any authority at all going forward. I don’t have high hopes that this is the lesson Maliki will take away from the Battle of Basra, but you never know.