It seems like only yesterday that, in the course of an online debate on the surge, my fellow Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steve Simon was claiming that “the ill-fated Basra offensive . . . was a humiliating blow for Maliki.” I tried to point out to Steve that, notwithstanding poor planning and early setbacks, the Basra offensive was not so ill-fated–that it was actually bolstering Prime Minister Maliki’s standing.
That was last week. Today, as if to confirm that analysis, the New York Times runs a long front-pager from Basra that calls the offensive “a rare success” for “forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki,” who “have largely quieted the city.” The Times is right to note that the gains are “fragile,” but they are nevertheless impressive: “in interviews across Basra, residents overwhelmingly reported a substantial improvement in their everyday lives.”
Notwithstanding some support from coalition forces, principally in the form of air cover and military advisers, almost all of the fighting has been done by the Iraqi Security Forces. The people of Basra realize that and are grateful. The Times quotes “one youth named Alaa” as saying: “I want to thank Mr. Nuri al-Maliki, because he cleaned Basra of murderers, hijackers and thieves.”
Meanwhile, further north, fighting continues in Sadr City despite a weekend truce proclaimed by Maliki and Moqtada al Sadr. The outcome is still uncertain, but it appears that Iraqi and American forces are making good progress in securing the southern third of Sadr City, which is being sealed off from the rest of this teeming slum with a giant concrete wall.
Pressure seems to be building on the Mahdi Army, which is probably why Sadr proclaimed the latest ceasefire. Of course his word isn’t worth much. And even if he is sincere, lots of Shiite extremists will continue resisting no matter what. But while death and destruction are never good news, this fighting nevertheless represents progress of a sort. The Sadr City offensive, like the Basra offensive, shows that the Iraqi government isn’t as sectarian as its critics feared: It is willing to take on Shiite as well as Sunni extremists. That will bolster the government’s standing and further the cause of sectarian and ethnic reconciliation.