The Threat of a Re-Surge in Iraq

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Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty

General David Petraeus is due to report to Congress on the progress of the surge on April 8 and 9

Could Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attempts to re-establish control over Basra backfire? There is a growing possibility that it could become a wider intra-Shi'ite war, drawing in the forces loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose ceasefire has been key to the success of the U.S. "surge"? If so, the consequences for American military strategy in Iraq in an all-important political year will be grave.

Maliki's government targeted Basra because it could. Unlike many other southern cities where fighting has escalated in recent weeks, Maliki has built an independent power base among the security forces there. But Tuesday's sweep of Basra could turn sour in other southern cities where the central government's power is weak. Indeed, many Shi'ites are seeing this not just as an example of the Shi'ite Maliki taking on other Shi'ites (including Sadrists) but of America backing the Prime Minister up in a de facto Shi'a civil war. Iraqi government forces have attacked Shi'ite militias and gangs in at least seven major southern Iraq cities in the past two weeks. And America has been there to support Maliki's troops every time.

In response, Sadr loyalists have already taken to the streets in Baghdad, where U.S. troops will have to deal with the backlash. U.S. officials have so far shied away from blaming Sadr for the recent rise of violence (including an Easter attack on the Green Zone), mostly because Sadr's ceasefire has been key to the success of the surge. (General David Petraeus has pointed the finger at Iran instead.) But as clashes increase, they may not be able to dance around it for much longer.

The violence is escalating as Patraeus, the architect of the nine-month military "surge" involving some 30,000 extra troops in Iraq, prepares for a scheduled Apr. 8 and 9 report to congress on his progress in Iraq. They also come as he and Defense Secretary Robert Gates waffle over whether to withdraw five combat brigades by July, reducing troop levels down from about 158,000 to 140,000 — the pre-surge peak. If the fighting spreads to other southern cities and attacks by Shi'ite militias increase, intra-Shiite violence may be the wrench that jams the whole works of a meaningful reduction of troops.

While the focus this weekend on attacks on Baghdad has now turned towards Basra, violence has surged for weeks throughout the Shi'ite south, where Americans have suffered fresh losses in old haunts in the cities of Nasiriyah, Hilla and Diwaniyah. Meanwhile, the Shi'ite infighting in Basra has forced British forces to stall the planned withdrawal of some 1,500 troops. Some 4,000 British troops have been hunkered down at the Basra airport after turning the city over to Iraqi forces last year. So far they have not been drawn from their base into this week's fighting there.

If the U.S. decides to actively go after the Shi'ite forces in the south, it would mean reopening a southern front where American forces once fought some of the Iraq war's fiercest battles against Sadr but now have only a shadow presence. That would involve draining the concentration of surge troops around Baghdad and the Sunni triangle. It might even require more troop extensions or additional deployments to hold ground and maintain modest gains. Moving against the Shi'ite strongholds could then open opportunities for the Sunni fighters of al-Qaeda to strike Iraqi and U.S. targets in the Sunni triangle as the American heat turns south.

This week's violence in Baghdad and Basra followed several days of bloodshed in the Shi'ite city of Kut, some 100 miles southeast of the capital, where Sadr loyalists clashed with police forces largely controlled by their Shi'ite rivals, the Badr Corps militants of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, and with government troops affiliated with Maliki's Da'awa party.

"This was expected. It was just a matter of timing," said Vali Nasr, Tufts University scholar and author of the bestselling book, The Shi'a Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. "The ceasefire and the surge allowed everyone to regroup and rearm. There is still the Shi'a-Sunni conflict. There is still the Sadr-Badr conflict. The surge and the ceasefire merely kept them apart, but there has never been a real political settlement," he said. "No, the big battle for Iraq hasn't been fought yet. The future of Iraq has not been determined." Nasr said the question now remains just how deep U.S. forces will get sucked into a Shi'ite civil war.

Sadr's ceasefire did allow U.S. forces to concentrate on hunting al-Qaeda in Baghdad, Mosul and Diyala without having an open front in the south. But it also allowed the cleric to rearm, clean his own house and retake the reins of his splintering movement. However, Sadr's devoted rank and file seem to be itching for a fight now as the Iraqi government and their American backers take sides with rival factions and continue to crack down on Sadr's Jaish al Mahdi, or JAM. "Sadr has had an interest in making sure everyone knows he's still around," Nasr said. "He's not going to go down without a fight."

The conveniently quiet arrangement between Sadr and the U.S. is now being challenged from within and from without. "There are all kinds of groups who would be interested in dragging [Sadr] into positions and into conflicts that he doesn't want to be in," said Anthony Cordesman, a top Iraq analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Cordesman warns against jumping to conclusions that the south is rising up. He says it's more likely that the recent violence is a sign that the many Shi'ite factions that have broken from Sadr's movement are seeking to prove their mettle, and that al-Qaeda cells are seeking new ways to strike as they are forced out of more and more areas by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Cordesman echoes Army Lt. Gen Ray Odierno, who, after leading U.S. forces in Iraq for the past 15 months, recently reported that Sadr seemed to be softening and his movement becoming more of a faith-based political movement than a militia waiting to kill Americans or take power by force. That said, Odierno expressed concern over the growing Shi'ite rivalries. "I worry about intra-Shi'a violence a bit," he said upon returning to the Pentagon earlier this month. "That could, you know, spiral out of control."