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Basra Assault Exposes Fraud of "National Reconciliation" in Iraq

Robert Naiman

Critics of the Bush Administration's policies in Iraq have charged that the Bush Administration's "surge" policy has failed, since its stated intention was to improve security to create the political space for "national reconciliation" in Iraq. Since national reconciliation has not taken place in Iraq, the surge has failed.

But after this week's US-assisted Iraqi government assault on neighborhoods in Basra controlled by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, I fear that this criticism praises with faint damnation. I fear that it could be construed to accept the premise that the Bush Administration is trying to produce national political reconciliation in Iraq, while arguing that it has failed to achieve its goal.

After this week, I regard this premise to be a clear fraud.

While President Bush says the Iraqi government offensive showed that the prime minister believed "in evenhanded justice" - presumably because the government was showing that it would attack Shiite as Sunni militias - supporters of the Mahdi Army claimed that it was a political attack on their movement to weaken it prior to regional elections scheduled for October. But this interpretation of events is by no means limited to Iraqis.

The Washington Post reports:

Some [U.S] officials have concluded that [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki himself is firing "the first salvo in upcoming elections," the administration official said. "His dog in that fight is that he is basically allied with the Badr Corps" [a rival Shiite militia, associated with a rival Shiite political party that is part of the U.S.-backed government] against forces loyal to Sadr, the official said. "It's not a pretty picture."

U.S. officials claim that Prime Minister Maliki "decided to launch the offensive" without consulting U.S. officials. This is an incredible claim, when you consider that the U.S. is participating in - and now in some places leading, the Post reports - the offensive:

U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in the vast Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, and military officials said Friday that U.S. aircraft bombed militant positions in the southern city of Basra, as the American role in a campaign against party-backed militias appeared to expand. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the Sadr City fighting, as U.S. troops took the lead.

Whatever one thinks of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, they are hardly a marginal political force in Iraq. In 2006, the New York Times noted, supporters of Sadr constituted the largest bloc in the Shiite parliamentary alliance.

Not surprisingly, the majority of casualties in Basra have been civilian, according to hospital officials.

How, exactly, will this assault contribute to "national reconciliation"? Why are U.S. soldiers killing and dying in this operation that was decided, supposedly, without consultation with U.S. officials? Members of Congress should be asking. It's one thing if the train from New York to Washington is late. It's quite another story if we discover that the train is headed to Chicago.

Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy.

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