Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
March 28, 2008

Did Maliki Trap the U.S.?

Everyone seems to be musing on why Maliki started this silly war against Sadr and why it was started now.

There is a theory that Cheney gave the order for this skirmish and another theory that this is all an Iranian plot. (See also Marc Lynch's take from a Saudi paper and on other theories.) A third informed opinion argues that this is Maliki's private dirty war to prevent elections in south Iraq.

The assumed motive in the first theory is that the anti-occupation stand of Sadr and his cooperation with nationalist Sunni forces are endangering the permanence of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. In the Iraqi parliament Sadr and Sunni nationalists could vote down any treaty that Cheney and Maliki would like to sign to achieve permanent U.S. backup for his or another puppets rule. Sadr has to be defeated before the end of the year when the UN mandate for U.S. troops runs out. Patrick Cockburn is going into that direction when he asserts that "the Americans must have agreed to the attack."

The Iranian plot theory comes with two different assumed Iranian motives. The first is that Iran ordered Maliki to attack because it wants to keep the U.S. in trouble and thereby prevent an attack on Iran. As Bill Lind layed out in Operation Cassandra a U.S. attack on Iran might well lead to a decisive defeat of the U.S. army in Iraq. With the U.S. army bogged down in Iraq, Iran has less to worry about. A second thought is that Iran would like to have a united southern Iraqi Shia state under Persian influence that over time could be assimilated into Iran. Sadr's nationalist stance and his relative distance to Teheran would hinder that goal.

Billmon, in comments to a recent Lind piece, combines these two theories and muses:

It is just me and my paranoia, or has anyone else noticed that just as the Cheney Misadministration grapples with the question of whether to continue the troop drawdown in Iraq, suddenly all hell breaks loose between the “good” Shia — i.e. our “allies” in the Maliki “government” — and the “bad” Shia in the Mahdi Army?

When I ran that observation by a friend, he immediately assumed I was accusing Team Cheney of stoking the boiler to keep the pressure on Bush/Rice and the troops in country. But I actually don’t have any particular theory of the case — there are so many suspects.

But it does occur to me (repeatedly) that Iranian hardliners of various denominations have a strong, vested interest in keeping the US Army buried up to its neck in the Iraqi sand pit, thereby making a march to Tehran impossible (or at least, even more impossible) and providing lots of ripe targets and potential hostages if the cabal decides to roll the dice with an air campaign against the Iranian nuclear program.

In other words, not for the first time I’m wondering: Are Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad essentially working the same side of the street?

Good question ...

The third theory, laid out in detail by Fester, is supported by this bite from WaPo:

The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday ...

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.

The current government in Iraq was pressured by Cheney to finally agree to pass the law for provincial elections this fall. The Republicans needed the passing of the election law to show some success from the 'surge'. But if the elections really would take place, Maliki's Dawa and his allies from ISCI would likely lose out against Sadr's followers.

Maliki therefore has to prevent the election. He started this civil war with an absurd small number of unreliable troops and no hope of winning against Sadr's Hizbullah like defense strategy. He did so to, successfully, draw the U.S. into a renewed fight over the South, the U.S. troops main supply line, to create chaos that will not allow for an election to take place.

The U.S. is in a bind and Maliki can effectively start wars against this or that faction and always demand to be backed up by U.S. power. The U.S. is now in position where it must fight other peoples civil wars.

Maybe Maliki did believe the Dan Senor spin that Sadr is defeated and thought he really could take over Basra? I doubt it. Maliki now has to extend the 'deadline' he gave to Sadr to lay down arms by more than a week and thereby conceded the obvious defeat. But if the third theory is right and Maliki really started this to draw the U.S. into a renewed fight against Sadr, he has achieved his goal:

U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.


[UK] Maj Holloway said US warplanes had for the first time in the operation carried out bombing raids overnight in Basra, targeting "mortar teams" and "a concentration of militia troops".

Abu Muqawama sees a dangerous historic parallel:

In Lebanon, in September 1983, the U.S. lent direct support to what it assumed was a national institution, the Lebanese Army, in the battle at Souk el-Gharb. By doing so, it became, in the eyes of the rest of the Lebanese population, just another militia. The U.S. history in Iraq is more complicated, obviously, but what's happening now is the U.S. is throwing our lot in with ISCI in the upcoming elections. And all Abu Muqawama is saying is, there better be a whole lot of quid pro quo going on as well.

Spencer Ackerman believes the unfolding chaos is an argument for the U.S. to stay longer, i.e. until a political solution is found. I disagree, the U.S. in Iraq is not the solution, but the source of the problem.

"If there were no Americans, there would be no fighting," said Abu Mustafa al-Thahabi, 38, a senior Mahdi Army member.

Whatever theory is right (I do lean to the third), from here on the war in Iraq will again become hotter.

Posted by b on March 28, 2008 at 13:23 UTC | Permalink


I can't see this theory that it was Maliki. He is not that bright or active. And he knows that the Shi'ite army units wouldn't fight well against their brother Shi'a.

This has got to be an American idea. Only the US is ignorant enough of the situation to come up with such a crass idea. An error which risks collapsing the entire US position in Iraq.

Iranians, forget it. There is simply no evidence of Iranian actively interventionist policies, other than in the fevered minds in Washington. Everything Iran has ever done is pretty much defensive.

Posted by: Alex | Mar 28 2008 13:49 utc | 1


It is clear that US policy is to back Maliki/Dawa/ISCI/Badr Corps (Iraqi Forces) against Moqtada al-Sadr and his "army" of "shirtless ones." Fine. Why not? I guess the US has no choice but to back someone.
My problem with the present course of events is the ruthlessness of the propaganda campaign being successfully waged by the Bush Administration. The president has succeeded in "framing" the discussion in such a way that Maliki and his assembly of Badr Corps militias are represented as being the equivalent of George Washington suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion. The noble Maliki is portrayed as motivated by a selfless desire for "national" unity. The MSM has re-transmitted that idea without serious question.
That brings up the inevitability of heavy US involvement in this suppression of the "Whiskey Rebellion." It's just a matter of time.

Posted by: b | Mar 28 2008 14:19 utc | 2

Well if Maliki is doing this on his own he has merely taken a page out of the US paybook, see slide 41 of Counterinsurgency in Iraq: Theory and Practice, 2007 by David Kilcullen... (what is happening now is step 4). If he is doing it at the instigation of the US then they're following the process. The answer is probably the latter, with the US (unintentionally) doing Iran a favor yet again!

Posted by: Dumass | Mar 28 2008 15:09 utc | 3

Considering Iraq by itself is like watching Ophelia's madness scene in Hamlet, and deducing the play's plot from that, if you can.

The most one can discern is that something is terribly wrong, is unholy rotten.

Iraq is but a theater in a strategic war to dominate the oil sources in the Middle East, thereby throttling America's emerging "enemy economies" -- China, India, Brazil -- and restricting Russia to minding its own affairs instead of growing its presence on the world stage.

The strategic goal is owning and operating the Caspian Basin region, and all points south of there. Puppet states or failed states from Baku to Beirut is the end goal. All lesser goals are adjustable and fungible under that one.

It's Baku or Bust, boys.

Iraq is but a beachhead. So is Iran. So is Syria, and so is Saudi Arabia if it ever goes flaky. That's American oil under that sand, so it's Give Over Or Die from here on out.

The challenge for the American Empire is to make itself "vital" to the "security and democracy" of fabled Syriana, the crescent shaped region stretching from the Caspian to the eastern Med. That's largely a PR challenge, not a military one. After we nuke a couple of bunkers in Persia, those Caspian states will be lining up to become wholly owned subsidiaries of America, Inc.

It's a sales job. There are point three billion Americans walking around right now -- less than three hundred thousand of them will reap virtually ALL the wealth being stolen over there.

Whether the Republic survives never bothered these folks. Whether the American Empire survives doesn't trouble them either. They and their money will be welcome anywhere in the world. They currently own and operate the biggest, baddest military and economic power in human history, and they use it to rape, pillage, and steal.

It's their machine. It's not your father's Republic.

Well over 90% of Americans are just along for the ride from this point.

As long as they are not willing to lop off heads, a la carte, that is.

Posted by: Hobson | Mar 28 2008 15:22 utc | 4

oops "pLaybook" not "paybook" :)

Posted by: Dumass | Mar 28 2008 15:37 utc | 5

it would seem what club seals are to canadians the people of iraq are for the united states. a thing to be clubbed into submission

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Mar 28 2008 18:58 utc | 6

hobsen, r'giap..


good wrap b

Posted by: annie | Mar 28 2008 19:18 utc | 7

Follow the Money, as always, whilst the US may not have sanctioned Maliki's gambit, better their puppet gets a twofer, kill Sadr and control Basra's oil.

A trade union leader in Basra reminded me this week that March was the month in 1991 when Saddam launched his infamous campaign to crush an uprising, which began in Basra and spread to most of the country. This week's attacks, he said, were much more ferocious that those 17 years ago. There are other disturbing echoes: Saddam's forces were being observed by US and British planes, which were in full control of Iraqi air space as the March uprising was so brutally crushed.

....They are also linking it to the fact that oil and dock workers' unions, declared illegal, are in full control of the ports and the major oil fields. These unions are strongly opposed to the US-backed oil law to privatise the Iraqi industry and allow the major oil companies to control production and marketing. The law is also opposed by the Sadr movement, which was expected to win a decisive victories in forthcoming elections.

Posted by: Cloned Poster | Mar 28 2008 21:03 utc | 8

Follow the Money, as always, whilst the US may not have sanctioned Maliki's gambit, better their puppet gets a twofer, kill Sadr and control Basra's oil.

A trade union leader in Basra reminded me this week that March was the month in 1991 when Saddam launched his infamous campaign to crush an uprising, which began in Basra and spread to most of the country. This week's attacks, he said, were much more ferocious that those 17 years ago. There are other disturbing echoes: Saddam's forces were being observed by US and British planes, which were in full control of Iraqi air space as the March uprising was so brutally crushed.

....They are also linking it to the fact that oil and dock workers' unions, declared illegal, are in full control of the ports and the major oil fields. These unions are strongly opposed to the US-backed oil law to privatise the Iraqi industry and allow the major oil companies to control production and marketing. The law is also opposed by the Sadr movement, which was expected to win a decisive victories in forthcoming elections.

Posted by: Cloned Poster | Mar 28 2008 21:07 utc | 9

Seems to be a consensus that this piece by Joshua Holland & Raed Jarrar is helpful in decoding current disaster. Five Things You Need to Know to Understand the Latest Violence in Iraq

It seems that once again, xUS & its puppets are opposed by 2/3's of the people, allowing Sadr to emerge as the favorite popular leader, assuming he jettisons permanently his mandatory fundie religious trappings. Sadr wants one State w/Oil kept in State Sector.

From Am. coverage, I suspect there's fairly widespread agreement/befuddlement among domestic Elites on how to deal w/it.

Posted by: jj | Mar 29 2008 2:52 utc | 10

Oh...this will help lots US sez Bombs Away, Sadr ... Gotta help out our Buddies, donchaknow ...

US aircraft attacked Shia militia in Basra for the first time in the current round of fighting as intense battles continued between supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr and tens of thousands of Iraqi forces in a crackdown personally supervised by Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

British troops, based at the city's airport, were kept away from the operation described by George Bush as "a defining moment in the history of Iraq".

American fighter jets dropped bombs on a mortar team and a militia stronghold in Basra, said Major Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman. The number of casualties was unknown.

As protests spread across Iraq, US aircraft also attacked Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, killing at least five civilians, according to Iraqi police and hospitals.

"There have been engagements going on in and around Sadr City. We've engaged the enemy with artillery, we've engaged the enemy with aircraft, we've engaged the enemy with direct fire," Major Mark Cheadle, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, said later.

Defying a curfew, protesters again attacked the US-protected Green Zone in the capital with mortars and rockets. Elsewhere at least 22 people, including six civilians, were killed in fierce fighting in the southern cities of Mahmoudiya, Nasiriya - now held by elements of Sadr's Mahdi army - and Kut, according to reports from police and army officials cited by news agencies.

Posted by: jj | Mar 29 2008 3:31 utc | 11

That FOW fog. Mystifying.

Picking at shards and trying to guess. All hell breaks loose just after Cheney visit, when Maliki contingent agrees to elections at last. Established pattern. Where Cheney worms his way to the center, fire, violence, and disaster ensue. Since Cheney has yet to evidence any grasp of reality, perhaps that is what confuses all of us. We still expect some sort of sense out of such moves.

In any case, the US had to have been informed before the "iraqi army" movement began. Probably under discussion for weeks.

Is this why Fallon resigned? Petraus, in an interview last week, made a point of saying, at three separate points in the interview, the he and Fallon have been fully in agreement during the past 6 mos. Why did Petraus make such a point of this? It seemed clear already that Fallon's irreconcilable differences were with the CEO of the US, as the preznit sees hisself.

Does this remind anyone else of US' interference in Gaza? Only this time, having "learned" from Gaza, US gave a nod to civil war first, then elections, in the hope of this time having the party most susceptible to puppetry win. OF course, the deciders could be wrong about ISCI dependency, were it to conquer, which doesn't look bloody likely.

Is the present US policy solution to put the flint to local civil wars wherever it cannot dominate?

In any case, nothing about the timing or planning looks like it would fit US (or Iraqi) military choices. These decisions originate in some political agenda.

Posted by: small coke | Mar 29 2008 4:21 utc | 12

Guardian: American warplanes join Iraqi troops in taking the fight to Shia militia

Sadr called for a political solution to the crisis on Thursday and an end to the "shedding of Iraqi blood". But the statement stopped short of ordering the Mahdi army to stop attacks. One of his representatives called Maliki "a hypocrite" during a Friday sermon yesterday in which he also called for an end to military operations, Reuters reported.

In Baghdad, the Iraqi parliament called an emergency meeting but only 54 members of the 275-seat body succeeded in getting inside the fortified Green Zone.

Posted by: b | Mar 29 2008 4:49 utc | 13

Good reporting by Sudarsan Raghavan 19 Tense Hours in Sadr City Alongside the Mahdi Army

From Thursday afternoon to Friday morning, this correspondent spent 19 hours on the block, including hours trapped by intense crossfire inside the house of Thahabi's parents.

During this time, the fighters engaged U.S. forces for seven hours. They lost a comrade. They launched rockets into the Green Zone. At approximately the same time, rockets killed a U.S. government employee, the second American killed there this week.

In between battles, fighters spoke about politics and war. There was no sign of dread, or grief, or fear. Death was a matter of honor, a shortcut to some divine place.

As the two sides exchanged fire, Thahabi's mother, Um Falah, clutched a Koran and began to recite a prayer to Imam Ali, Shiite Islam's most revered saint. Her eldest son, Abu Hassan, a Mahdi Army commander, was fighting this day.

"May Ali be with you," said Um Falah, who wore a black abaya and round eyeglasses. "I pray that all the bullets will not affect you."
Um Falah stood in the courtyard, her face lined with anxiety. But she continued her chores calmly. "I have gotten used to war, to all the battles in our lives," she said. It was not the first time her son had gone to battle U.S. troops, and in her heart, she said, she knew it would not be the last. "I have sent my son on the right path," she said.
"They know the Sadrists will win the elections," Thahabi said of the government. "So they are using the Americans against the Mahdi Army. People have reached a point that they will sell their refrigerator to buy a rocket launcher to shoot and kill the Americans."
"We are proud that he died," said Abu Moussa al-Sadr, 31, another militiaman. "Whenever one of us dies, it raises our morale. It intensifies our fighting."

"If we defeat them, we win," Kabi said. "And if we die, we win."
A father of four who studied psychology in college, Thahabi wore olive pants and a blue sweater, looking more like a professor than a militia adviser. He spoke in a slow, measured voice and clutched three cellphones, each using a different network.
At 9:05 p.m., Abu Nargis received a phone call. He said he had been told that a police commander with 500 policemen would stop working with the government and join the Mahdi Army.

Posted by: b | Mar 29 2008 7:09 utc | 14

You got to contain your gag reflex when reading this shit from the Daily Mail, but the money shot is here.

Already at the Basra air base, I can reveal, the British subsidiary of U.S. construction giant KBR is building four huge dining facilities - known to the American army as DFACs. These are capable of feeding 4,000 men and suggest that the U.S. Army is contemplating a massive deployment to southern Iraq - including a major presence inside Basra itself.

Posted by: Cloned Poster | Mar 29 2008 7:14 utc | 15

@CP - not new - David Axe posted that a few days ago.

Which means any Western intervention in Basra — some reports are calling it a planned “surge” for the south — will have to be mostly manned by U.S. forces. Specifically, U.S. Marines, according to one AFP report.

There were signs that U.S. planners were preparing for this eventuality months ago. Despite steady cuts to British forces at Basra air station, construction continued on new facilities, including dining halls capable of feeding thousands of troops. British soldiers openly speculated that the new buildings were for the Yanks who might one day replace them in southern Iraq.

Now I wonder where the heck is the U.S. going to get a brigade of Marines from?

The only thing I can think of is to drag them down from Anbar which will then again be a mess. This is wack-the-mole ...

Posted by: b | Mar 29 2008 11:19 utc | 16


If Basra is under US control with a significant presence would that not make it a little easier, logistically, to launch an invasion on Iran? I am not sure that the Iranians can completely close the straits of Hormuz so it seems possible that Basra could be used for resupply. at a minimus it could be a jumping off point for an invasion.

just idle conjecture from me, I am not a military tactician by any means.

Posted by: dan of steele | Mar 29 2008 14:48 utc | 17

@Dan - a U.S. force in Basra would likely be defensive, not offensive. A brigade or so (4000 folks) would have its hand full caring for the port, the pipelines the roads needed for supplying Baghdad. (Basra has some 2.6 million inhabitants - its not a small town.) No way that they would go into Iran. Building the DEFAC points to a long term "sitting force" not to some maneuvering elements.

(BTW: There are mud marshes across the river that marks the border to Iran next to Basra. Saddam was severly beaten when he tried to capture and hold that area in 1981 and he put at least 1-2 divisons into that attack there.)

On a different note - the sugggestion that Cheney ordered this attack when he visited Iraq on March 17 is somewhat debunct by this pievce in the London Times: Iraqi police in Basra shed their uniforms, kept their rifles and switched sides

Abu Iman barely flinched when the Iraqi Government ordered his unit of special police to move against al-Mahdi Army fighters in Basra.

His response, while swift, was not what British and US military trainers who have spent the past five years schooling the Iraqi security forces would have hoped for. He and 15 of his comrades took off their uniforms, kept their government-issued rifles and went over to the other side without a second thought.
“We already heard two weeks ago that we were going to attack the Mahdi Army, so we were ready,” he said. “I decided to take off my uniform and join my brothers and friends in the Mahdi Army. All these years, we were like a scream in the face of the dictator and the occupation.”

Posted by: b | Mar 29 2008 19:06 utc | 18

A rare moment of openess? on US msm, two ‘Us’ iraqis interviewed by Charlie Rose.

Greenwald wrote about it, afaik, on Salon.> you tube

note how one or the other says that the US is replicating neighborhood watch etc. - exactly what Saddam did. The US and the iraqi Gvmt. are holed up in the Green Zone, in Sadam’s palaces and headquarters, attacked daily by home made rockets.

Posted by: Tangerine | Mar 29 2008 19:12 utc | 19

Cheney may not have ordered the attack on the Mahdi, but I'm sure he gave gave final approval for any evolving plan. Most telling is how Bush has the wurlitzer volume topped out on this one - calling Maliki heroic, decisive, and how this is a major indication of how great its going in Iraq. An unusual amount of expectation being piled on tiny dancer's flimsy shoulders.

Posted by: anna missed | Mar 29 2008 19:24 utc | 20

anna - An unusual amount of expectation being piled on tiny dancer's flimsy shoulders.

Maybe Bush wants al-Hakim as prime minister?

Posted by: b | Mar 29 2008 19:36 utc | 21

Geeze, to quote from "Dumb, Dumber", "...just when I thought you couldn't do anything more stupid you do something like this and completely redeem yourself..."

[gag, puke, wheeze, barf...]

In the Happy Little Kingdom of Denamrk, the news follows the Party Line -- some wierd guys in Basra are being put down by the Iraqi gov't...

[gag, puke, wheeze, barf...]

Posted by: Chuck Cliff | Mar 30 2008 8:26 utc | 22

A. Cordesman: A Civil War Iraq Can’t Win

Much of the reporting on this fighting in Basra and Baghdad — which was initiated by the Iraqi government — assumes that Mr. Sadr and his militia are the bad guys who are out to spoil the peace, and that the government forces are the legitimate side trying to bring order. This is a dangerous oversimplification, and one that the United States needs to be far more careful about endorsing.
No one should romanticize the Sadr movement, understate the risks it presents or ignore the violent radicals in the Mahdi Army.

But it is equally important not to romanticize Mr. Maliki, the Dawa Party or the Islamic Supreme Council. The current fighting, which the government portrays as a crackdown on criminality, is better seen as a power grab, an effort by Mr. Maliki and the most powerful Shiite political parties to establish their authority over Basra and the parts of Baghdad that have eluded their grasp.
American military and civilian officials were candid in telling me that the governors and other local officials installed by the central government in Basra and elsewhere in southern Iraq had no popular base. If open local and provincial elections were held, they said, Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council were likely to be routed because they were seen as having failed to bring development and government services.
There are good reasons for the central government to reassert control of Basra. It is not peaceful. It is the key to Iraq’s oil exports. Gang rule is no substitute for legitimate government. But given the timing and tactics, it is far from clear that this offensive is meant to serve the nation’s interest as opposed to those of the Islamic Supreme Council and Dawa.

Posted by: b | Mar 30 2008 8:36 utc | 23

Cordesman's judgement is not bad here. It does look as though the growing power of the Sadrists is the issue which sparked off the assault on Basra. The defections from the army and police are a good indicator. The widespread nature of the conflicts across the south and in Baghdad, also. The question is, can a military assault be the solution? I don't think so, more likely to provoke a general crisis. And I do think the crisis is a major one. The closest the US has come to a crisis in the occupation.

To come back to the original question of the post: Did Maliki Trap the U.S.? We are no nearer to knowing the answer. The US is anti-Sadrist, because Sadr wants an end to the occupation. Da'wa and ISIC are both afraid of the Sadrists, because they are going to lose position in the October elections. Maybe the attack was a UIA initiative, to take a minimum position, but to suggest that the US didn't know what was going to happen is absurd. The US controls everything in the Green Zone, microphones everywhere I should think. They didn't know what the Iraqis were discussing amongst themselves? That would be one of the most major failures of US intelligence that ever happened. Much more serious than Saddam's WMD (where they didn't have many agents on the ground). So they did know, and Cheyney must have approved, being there a week before. That's the minimum position. It's also possible that it was a US initiative.

But the attacks proving to be a major error of US policy. That is certain.

I see at the beginning of this discussion (#1) that I didn't think it was Maliki's initiative. I am less certain now, but I am here setting out the options of interpretation.

Posted by: Alex | Mar 30 2008 9:27 utc | 24

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