Friday Morning Update: This is a pretty comprehensive update from the Washington Post, although I have my doubts about the top of the story–Sadr City is a vast place and four stryker vehicles hardly represent a major assault.
The really worrisome part about this is that the U.S. is getting sucked into a potentially massive intramural Shi’ite struggle that is bound to further destabilize that country–without our having made a strategic decision to take part in that fight. According to the Post, our “ally” Maliki launched the operation on his own:
Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials. 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.
Most close observers of Iraq saw this fight coming. Over the past year, I’ve spoken to numerous experts in the military and the intelligence community–and they were quite divided about how to handle it. Some say we should join the fight against Sadr; others say we should stay out of it (and others suspect that Sadr may be the best hope for a stable, independent Iraq). My own preference is to stay out: We don’t know very much about the Shi’ites. We’ve been fighting Sunnis for five years. Come to think of it, we don’t know all that much about Sunnis, either. The so-called “Surge” had absolutely nothing to do with the Shi’ite south. We have few troops there beyond the occasional special operations unit. Involving ourselves in this fight would represent a huge, and quite possibly very bloody, escalation of the war.
And so, a major decision is being forced upon the U.S. command–and we’ll see how Petraeus, whose own staff was divided about this when I visited Baghdad last year, responds.
More: From Fred Kaplan, excellent as always.
And More: The New York Times is reporting U.S. airstrikes in Basra. This is bad news. It could lead to Mahdi Army retaliations against U.S. troops and bases elsewhere in the country–which, in turn, would lead to U.S. ground involvement in the Shi’ite civil war. As I said, a significant and bloody escalation.