Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Most Shocking Theory on the Battle of Basra

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's sudden attack on the Mahdi Army in Basra and Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr's equally sudden agreement to a truce have puzzled many. There have been several theories proposed now for why Maliki decided to launch the attack. But none explain the biggest mystery of all -- how he could possibly have expected it to succeed. Consider the theories:

(1) Forced to hold provincial elections, Maliki was moving to eliminate his most popular rival who was expected to win. This has been the most widely-held theory. What it fails to explain is why the government of Iraq employed such obviously inadequate force and apparently expected to sweep away the Mahdi Army within a few days.

(2) Corollary to (1). Many people have noticed that the offensive took place a week after Dick Cheney visited Iraq and suggest a quid pro quo. Cheney insisted that Maliki hold provincial elections that the Sadrist were expected to win but agreed, in exchange to allow him first to eliminate Sadr's organization by force. The US knew of the offensive in advance, but did not expect the Iraqi government to act so soon (or, presumbly, so ineffectually).

(3) Maliki saw himself at a disadvantage because his own Dawa party, unlike the Sadrist or the SIIC, did not have its own militia. He was therefore attempting to turn the Iraqi Army into the Dawa militia. If so, he is got off to a poor start, attacking an entrenched rival with woefully inadequate force and wildly unrealistic objectives.

(3) Iran was really behind the offensive, urging its proxies to eliminate the overly independent Mahdi Army. The offensive, after all, also took place shortly after a visit to Bagdad by Ahmadinejad. This theory lost a great deal of plausibility when Iran then brokered a cease-fire. Maybe the Iranians changed their mind when the offensive did not go so well. But it still leaves unaswered the question of why they would have expected a quick and easy victory.

(4) Maliki fell for propaganda that the Mahdi Army was weakened and would be easily defeated. This accounts for the inadequate force and unrealistic expectations, but really!

The inadequacy of Iraqi forces to defeat the Mahdi Army in a densely populated urban area, and the absurdity of expecting such an operation to take as little as 48 hours have, to me at least, always been the greatest mystery of the whole operation. This commentator explains just how absurdly inadequate that force was:


During the Second Battle of Fallujah, the US attacking forces were composed of a composite division as six battalions led the main attack, another battalion as a diversion force, and two battalions as local reserves. . . . The defending forces would have been the equivlant of two or three battalions of light infantry and local insurgents/neighborhood militias. Fallujah was a city of roughly 300,00 residents before the assault. And this assualt was supported by theatre level artillery and air support. And despite this large armored and heavy infantry force with excellent air support, plenty of helicopter mobility and firepower, superior logistics, the defending force was able to inflict heavy absolute and proportional casualties --- roughly 10% of the US force was wounded or killed, and many infantry companies saw 30% to 50% casualty levels.

The Iraqi Army force in Basra is a single division of lightly supported infantry with some US/UK locally controlled air support, minimal artillery, minimal aviation support. Basra is a city of 2.6 million people (2003) and it is overwhelmingly Shi'ite. If one assumes that one half of one percent of the male population are available to be called up for Mahdi Army fighting units, the defenders have numerical parity with the attacking force. That is never a good thing, especially when the defenders are on their own grounds, fighting from prepared positions in dense urban networks and have higher morale and more firepower than the attackers.
In short, expecting the Iraqi Army to prevail, let alone quickly or easily, was sheer madness.

Well, now a provocative, if rather paranoid new theory has been proposed. Apparently based on British sources, this theory holds that the initiative for the Basra offensive rested with the United States and the Iraqi attack was intentionally botched to thwart US plans. According to this theory, General Petraeus, who had no illusions about what it would take to defeat the Mahdi Army, had planned a summer offensive. This operation would have deployed thousands of Marines and was expect to last for months.

The purpose of Cheney's visit was to pressure al-Maliki to go along with this offensive. Unable to prevent an offensive altogether, Maliki agreed to an attack, but only on his own terms. The Iraqi Army would attack Mahdi forces in Basra with a few brigades, but no British or American forces. The operation was planned to last only a week to ten days. Naturally Petraeus warned that the scale of the operation was not large enough and that the proposed time frame was unrealistic. And, of course, events proved him right. When the Iraqi Army offensive failed to capture Basra, Iran negotiated a cease-fire. "That ploy move . . . raised the possibility that al-Maliki intended from the beginning that the outcome of the Basra operation would be a new agreement that would prevent the deployment of U.S. and British troops to fight the Mahdi Army during the summer."

This interpretation, if true, could explain some of the principals' odd behavior. It would explain why Maliki launched such an obviously ill-conceived attack; he did not intend for it to succeed. It would also explain why Sadr was so amenable to a ceasefire; presumably the government delegation explained that they were launching a mere token offensive, designed to prevent a more serious attack by the United States. But it raises an even bigger question. Why on earth would Maliki believe that launching a mock offensive prematurely would prevent a real US offensive later on?

PS: I should note so far serious experts such as Juan Cole and Marc Lynch have not taken this theory seriously enough to link to it. See also this article suggesting that the Basra offensive, although not militarily successful, may be the start of a slow reassertion of government power over Basra.

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