In the Arena

Today in Iraq

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Big trouble. The Maliki government appears to be moving against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra, Baghdad and perhaps elsewhere. Heavy fighting is reported by the New York Times, which also reports:

The operation, which senior Iraqi officials had been signaling for weeks, is considered so important by the Iraqi government that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who went to Basra on Monday, intended to personally direct the fighting, several Iraqi officials said.

Which I’m sure will come as a great comfort to the U.S. military and all Iraqis.

And now, the question: How will the U.S. media portray this? As the Iraqi Army cleaning up a renegade militia in Basra? Probably. But the Iraqi Army in Basra is mostly composed of another renegade militia–the Badr Corps, an organization founded by Iran and answerable to ISCI–the Shi’ite faction led by the Hakim family, Sadr’s great rival. There are no heroes here. The Sadr movement is populist, nationalist, anti-Iranian, in favor of a strong central government…but it’s also anti-American and oriented toward a stricter Islamic state than the current Maliki government is. The Hakim family’s movement is both pro-American and pro-Iranian. It is federalist, rather than nationalist, in favor of a weak central government with a strong Shi’istan in the south (which would be heavily influenced by Iran).

My intelligence sources have told me in the past that we don’t know nearly enough about the southern Shi’ite factions–we’ve been fighting and wooing Sunnis in the north for the past five years–and that U.S. involvement in the Basra fight would be a disastrous idea. Let’s hope that General Petraeus makes the right decision, stays out of it in Basra and keeps a low U.S. profile in the Shi’ite neighborhoods–almost exclusively Sadr-controlled–in Baghdad.

We’ll see how this turns out…but wasn’t it just yesterday that Fred Kagan was saying, at the American Enterprise Institute, that the Iraqi civil war was over? And didn’t John McCain just say that he didn’t care what anybody thought, we were “succeeding” in Iraq? Unfortunately, Iraq is a majority Shi’ite country–and the two major Shi’ite factions seem poised to tear each other apart.