Shades of gray in Basra

In the painful years since 9/11, President Bush has sought to provide Americans with a morally coherent narrative to explain our two long wars and other costly foreign involvements. And although the probity of the Iraq war has been widely debated, most Americans have agreed that we must fight radical Islamist movements that use terror and seek to humiliate and defeat the United States. Many have grudgingly accepted the five-year-plus U.S. military operation in Iraq because the president told them we had to keep foreign Al Qaeda fighters and meddling Iranians from destabilizing the elected Iraqi government.

Iraq's problems were never so black-and-white, but Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's disastrous attempt to strike at lawlessBasra has made them even grayer. For starters, the "criminal elements" in Basra are sworn enemies of Al Qaeda. All of the Shiite factions in Iraq are receiving money, political support and probably weapons from Tehran, which unlike Washington is smart enough to hedge its Shiite bets. The latest speculation is that Maliki realized that Iranian influence in Basra had gone too far and decided to crack down on both the Mahdi Army, whose leader, Muqtada Sadr, had declared a cease-fire, and the other Iranian-backed militias that had continued to attack Iraqi and U.S. forces. Why Maliki made this sudden decision two weeks after feting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Baghdad is unclear.

It's beyond dispute that some of the Shiite forces controlling Iraq's southern oil center, in particular its vital port, were indeed Iranian-backed and corrupt. Some ran death squads and kidnapping rings. (Of course, some of the same charges can be leveled against members of Maliki's government.) U.S. officials agreed that eventually the port would have to be brought under government control. Whether this ill-planned, seemingly impulsive decision to resort to force was the only way to accomplish that goal is another matter.

Sadr's forces say Maliki merely wants to wipe out his powerful Shiite rivals ahead of the key provincial elections slated for October -- and is using the Americans to help him. Yet there is a real danger that the unpopular Maliki may instead generate a sympathy vote for the anti-American Sadr. Because the British failed spectacularly to bring law and order to Basra and the U.S. has poor intelligence there, Washington may have difficulty sizing up the situation for some time to come. Meanwhile, whether or not the U.S. military was sandbagged into providing extensive backup for this dubious Iraqi military operation, Bush would be unwise to let Maliki believe that U.S. support remains unconditional. And when will U.S. officials, starting with the president, stop labeling as "terrorists" everyone who opposes the Maliki government, which Washington well knows to be corrupt, sectarian and incompetent?

The U.S. military finally made progress in Anbar province when it stopped demonizing its opponents and started identifying those with common political interests. Wouldn't that be a wiser approach for Basra?

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