WASHINGTON, Mar 31 (IPS) - As it became clear last week that the "Operation Knights Assault" in Basra was in serious trouble, the George W. Bush administration began to claim in off-the-record statements to journalists that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had launched the operation without consulting Washington.
The effort to disclaim U.S. responsibility for the operation is an indication that it was viewed as a major embarrassment just as top commander Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are about to testify before Congress.
Behind this furious backpedaling is a major Bush administration miscalculation about Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, which the administration believed was no longer capable of a coordinated military operation. It is now apparent that Sadr and the Mahdi Army were holding back because they were still in the process of retraining and reorganisation, not because Sadr had given up the military option or had lost control of the Mahdi Army.
The process of the administration distancing itself from the Basra operation began on Mar. 27, when the Washington Post reported that administration officials, speaking anonymously, said that al-Maliki had "decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies..." One official claimed, "[W]e can't quite decipher" what is going on, adding that it was a question of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why al-Maliki acted when he did.
On Mar. 30, the New York Times reported from Baghdad that "few observers in Iraq seem to believe that al-Maliki intended such a bold stroke," and that "many say the notoriously cautious politician stumbled into a major assault".
The Times quoted a "senior Western official in Baghdad" -- the term usually used for the ambassador or senior military commander -- as saying, "Maliki miscalculated," adding, "From all I hear, al-Maliki's trip was not intended to be the start of major combat operations right there, but a show of force."
The official claimed there were "some heated exchanges between him and the generals, who out of hurt pride or out of calculation or both then insisted on him taking responsibility."
These suggestions that it was al-Maliki who miscalculated in Basra are clearly false. No significant Iraqi military action can be planned without a range of military support functions being undertaken by the U.S. command. On Mar. 25, just as the operation was getting under way in Basra, U.S. military spokesman Col. Bill Buckner said "coalition forces" were providing intelligence, surveillance and support aircraft for the operation.
Furthermore, the embedded role of the U.S. Military Transition Teams (MTTs) makes it impossible that any Iraqi military operation could be planned without their full involvement.
A U.S. adviser to the Iraqi security forces involved in the operation told a Washington Post reporter by telephone on Mar. 25 he expected the operation to take a week to 10 days.
Operation Knights Assault also involved actual U.S.-Iraqi joint combat operations. U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner denied on Mar. 26 that there were any "conventional" U.S. forces involved in the operation. Only on Mar. 30 did the U.S. command confirm that a joint raid by Iraqi and U.S. special forces units had "killed 22 suspected militants" in Basra.
Some observers have expressed doubt that the Bush administration would have chosen to have al-Maliki launch such a risky campaign against well-entrenched Shiite militiamen in Basra until after the Petraeus-Crocker testimony had been completed. But that assumes that Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon recognised the potential danger of a large-scale effort to eliminate or severely weaken the Mahdi Army in Basra.
In fact, the Bush administration and the Iraqi military were clearly taken by surprise when the Mahdi Army in Basra attacked security forces on Mar. 25, initiating a major battle for the city.
For many months the Bush administration, encouraged by Moqtada al-Sadr's unilateral ceasefire of last August, had been testing Sadr and the Mahdi Army to see if they would respond to piecemeal repression by striking back. The U.S. command and Iraqi security forces had carried out constant "cordon and search" operations which had resulted in the detention of at least 2,000 Mahdi Army militiamen since the August ceasefire, according to a Sadrist legislator.
Resistance to such operations by the Mahdi Army had been minimal, and Bush administration officials attributed Sadr's apparent acquiescence to restraining Iranian influence and the decline of the Mahdi Army as a fighting force.
At the meeting with Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi Jul. 24, Ambassador Crocker had held Iran directly responsible for what he called "militia-related activity that could be attributed to Iranian support". After the Sadr ceasefire, top officials of the al-Maliki government as well as rival Shiite party leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim had told U.S. officials that Iran had intervened to convince Sadr to end Mahdi Army fighting, presumably because of its desire to stabilise the Shiite-dominated Iraqi regime.
In an interview with the Washington Post Dec. 23, David Satterfield, a senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and coordinator for Iraq, said the decline in the number of attacks by Mahdi Army militiamen "has to be attributed to an Iranian policy decision" and suggested that the policy decision had been made "at the most senior level" in Tehran.
Pentagon officials weren't sure why the Mahdi Army was not fighting back, but the Los Angeles Times reported Oct. 31 that they hoped both that the gradual decline in attacks would continue, and such a decline "means that Iran has heard their warnings". Two weeks later, Maj. Gen. Jim Simmons, a deputy to Petraeus, said the Iranian "initiatives and commitments" to withhold weapons "appear to be holding up".
Petraeus, meanwhile, was convinced that the ability of the Mahdi Army to resist had been reduced by U.S. military actions as well as by its presumed internal disorganisation. His spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, declared in early November, "As we've gone after that training skill levels amongst the enemy, we've degraded their capability..."
Then came Sadr's announcement Feb. 22 that the ceasefire would be extended. That apparently convinced Petraeus and the Bush White House that they could now launch a large-scale "cordon and search" operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra without great risk of a military response.
That assumption ignored the evidence that Sadr had been avoiding major combat because he was in the process of reorganising and rebuilding the Mahdi Army into a more effective force. Thousands of Mahdi Army fighters, including top commanders, were sent to Iran for training -- not as "rogue element", as suggested by the U.S. command, but with Sadr's full support. One veteran Mahdi Army fighter who had undergone such training told The Independent last April that the retraining was "part of a new strategy. We know we are against a strong enemy and we must learn proper methods and techniques."
Last week a Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City was quoted by The Canadian Press as saying, "We are now better organised, have better weapons, command centres and easy access to logistical and financial support."
The ability of Mahdi Army units in Basra to stop in its tracks the biggest operation mounted against it since 2004 suggests that Shiite military resistance to the occupation is only beginning. By making that point just before Petraeus's testimony, Sadr has posed a major challenge to the Bush narrative of military success in Iraq.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
© 2008 Inter Press Service