A Great Leap Backward
Whoever they are, the people who planned and put in motion the onslaught on Basra have yet again dragged themselves into the quicksands of the Sadr movement. If the US vice president, Dick Cheney, fresh from a visit to Baghdad in the days before the biggest troop deployment of the US-trained Iraqi armed forces, doesn't phone the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to demand a hasty retreat, then Iraq is heading for a major uprising.
Maliki, as commander-in-chief, went to Iraq's second city himself to direct operations against the Sadr movement, at the helm of two armoured divisions and thousands of policemen. Bombardment of neighbourhood strongholds began at midnight on Monday, with British and US planes providing air cover. Maliki gave the Mahdi Army (without naming it) 72 hours to surrender. Within minutes, it became clear that the Mahdi fighters, led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, were in no mood to do so. They fought back and tightened their grip - joined by deserters from government forces.
Maliki declared on Thursday that there will be no negotiations and that he was leading the Iraqi forces in a battle to the finish. An elated George Bush gave Maliki his full support - the "kiss of death", as one Baghdad resident put it. Maliki and British officers strove to portray the Basra operation as the independent decision of the Iraqi government. That was quickly proved to be wishful thinking as US planes flew to the rescue of government forces. Bombing missions included Basra, Hilla, Nassiriya and Baghdad. Hundreds, and, some report, thousands, of people are believed to have been killed or injured.
Within 48 hours of the initial assault, many of Iraq's southern cities were visibly controlled by the Mahdi Army. More alarmingly still for Maliki's "charge of the knights" operation, many areas of Baghdad were not only staging protest marches but were evidently controlled by Sadr supporters, joined by various anti-occupation allies.
Yesterday, Maliki was forced to extend the deadline to ten days and to loosen the curfew in Basra to allow access to food and water. He even offered payments to those handing in their arms. He must have been shocked to see how swiftly hundreds of thousands of people answered Sadr's call to protest the Basra siege. Placards were brandished declaring him "the new dictator".
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.
The scale of the outcry has forced Grand Ayattollah Sistani to call for a peaceful solution to the conflict, even though his various spokespeople initially supported the assault. By Friday, government officials were falling over themselves to get to TV stations to declare that the fighting was not against the Sadr movement at all. With an eye on the sentiment and reality on the streets, some officials even heaped praise on Sadr, insisting the conflict was with "ordinary criminals".
Many Iraqis are linking what they regard as a premeditated and unprovoked attack on a relatively peaceful city with Cheney's visit and Washington's insistence that the US-trained Iraqi armed forces should do more of the ground-fighting, while the occupation forces resort to air attacks and emergency support.
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.