Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Shia Front

Shia radicals continued a low-level challenge earlier today to our forces and the Iraqi government:

Iraqi forces clashed with Shiite militiamen Tuesday in the southern oil port of Basra and rockets rained down on the U.S.-protected Green Zone in Baghdad as followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr expanded a nationwide backlash against government crackdowns.

The U.S. Embassy said no deaths or serious casualties were reported in the Green Zone attacks — the second major barrage this week launched from Shiite areas. Two rockets landed on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's compound, but did not explode, an Iraqi government security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose the information.

Al-Maliki was in Basra, where he is supervising the operation against the Shiite militia fighters. At least 22 people were killed in the Basra fighting, officials said.

This opposition from within the Shia community represents a minority of Shia opinion. It is also divided into the Sadrist elements that Sadr commands and the Iranian-backed thugs who have some number who are actually just Iranians (there were plenty of refugees from Iraq from the Saddam era in Iran) slipped into Iraq. Remember, too, that there is no ceasefire from the Iranian thugs. They continue to fight us, ceasefire or no ceasefire by Sadr.

The vast majority of Shias want nothing to do with any of these elements, but the government and our forces must treat them carefully because though the Shia thugs may be thugs, they are still Shia and so can call on some sympathy from the non-violent majority if the government response is seen as too harsh. One can see why Maliki is in Basra to personally direct a very sensitive operation.

The news reports later in the day on the surface seem scary with spreading fighting against the Shia thugs:

With Iraq's top leaders directing the battle, Iraq's army and national police pressed a major operation Tuesday to wrest control of the southern port city of Basra from the Shiite Mahdi Army militia. Fighting between government forces and the militia quickly spread through Iraq's south and into Baghdad.

Yet the Shia thugs risk much by choosing to violently confront the government. We shall see if this is a spasm or a sustained effort by our Sadrist enemies. Talk of Sadr reversing the gains of the surge are misleading. Yes, if the Sadrists provoke a full conflict, violence will go up. But most of the violence will be government and American forces killing and capturing the Shia thugs.

And without the al Qaeda and Baathist resistance in the field fighting the government full throttle, the Shia thugs expose themselves to the full fury of our side's security forces. Never forget that the ceasefire has kept our side from overtly taking on the Sadrist thugs as much as it has kept the Shia thugs from killing civilians and attacking us. By striking at the government, the Sadrists give the government more options for using force without provoking sympathy.

And if we are going to have a confrontation with Sadr's goons and the Iranian-backed terrorists, it would probably be better to do it before we withdraw all of our surge forces. While Iraqi forces are fighting now, it is good to have US troops in the theater capable of helping out if needed.

Remember, too, that with provincial elections probably set for the fall, the Shia militias need to be defeated so voters will be able to cast ballots without fear.

This bears watching, but I don't think this is a threat that could defeat the government because I don't think Sadr commands enough support among the Shias to sustain a revolt.