Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says the recent military operation to crack down on Shi’a militias in the southern city of Basra was a success. However, many regional analysts are skeptical.
Militiamen with the Mahdi Army, followers of Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, mostly vanished from the streets of Basra last week, after he ordered them to lay down their arms. Iraqi authorities also lifted their curfew. But at least 400 people were killed during the fighting between al-Sadr militants and Iraqi and coalition forces in Basra and Baghdad. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised Prime Minister Maliki’s efforts to tackle the Shi’a militias in Basra, the center of Iraq’s oil industry. Iraqi lawmakers say that Iranian officials helped broker the new truce with al-Sadr’s group when Iraqi politicians traveled to Iran, asking authorities there to urge an end to the violence.
But because Prime Minister Maliki had earlier vowed that he would see the Basra campaign through to a military victory, some critics view the negotiated outcome as a serious blow to his leadership. For example, British journalist Jonathan Steele, senior foreign correspondent of The Guardian, says the actual conditions for the agreement between the two sides are unclear. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Steele says it is unclear whether the ceasefire of Muqtada al-Sadr was unilateral or – as seems more likely – he cut some kind of deal with the Iraqi government. Jonathan Steele notes that the Iraqi government appears to have agreed to stop its policy of “arresting Sadrist local commanders, and even to have agreed to release some of those currently being held. If the government made such a concession – as appears to be the case – it represents “quite a victory for al-Sadr, Mr. Steele adds.
But Kurdish journalist Omar Sheikhmous sees the situation altogether differently and says in fact that the exact opposite is the case. Mr. Sheikhmous says Prime Minister Maliki is stronger today than two weeks ago. Furthermore, he says, it’s quite possible that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shi’a who lives in Iran, and other Shi’a leaders put pressure on Muqtada al-Sadr to agree to a ceasefire. However, the Arab press has an utterly different impression of the situation, according to Nadia Bilbassy, diplomatic correspondent for Al-Arabiya television – namely, they think Iran emerged as the real winner. Ms. Bilbassy says it’s better for Iran to support the Iraqi government because in the long term they don’t want to see “chaos and internal fighting between the militias.”
But Jonathan Steele suggests that both the al-Maliqi government and the Bush administration may be over-confident because their assessment of the situation ignores the fact that the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr has not been weakened in any serious or permanent way. According to Jonathan Steele, because the Mahdi Army has not agreed to give up their weapons, “we’re really back at square one.” Nadia Bilbassy agrees and points out that Muqtada al-Sadr still commands the loyalty of the Shi’a residents in the huge slum of Sadr City in Baghdad. And she suggests that the calm may be “only temporary.” She calls the Shi’a militias still a “force to be reckoned with.”
These developments came just a week before U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus testified before Congress on the success of the U.S. military surge and on the al-Maliki government’s political progress. Meanwhile, British Defense Secretary Desmond Brown announced that further reduction in British forces in southern Iraq had been postponed, pending a review of the security situation in Basra.
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