March 27, 2008 11:22 p.m.

To hear the Bush administration tell it, the current flare-up in Iraq is a sign of the success of the surge. In theory at least there’s a certain logic to this argument. What administration officials claim is that the surge has allowed the al Maliki government to consolidate its power sufficiently that it can take on Sadr’s militia, the outlaw but until recenlty quiescent Mahdi Army.

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, that does not seem to be what’s happening.

The clearest analysis I’ve read is Fred Kaplan’s short piece in Slate, which explains that this is not so much the Iraqi ‘government’ standing down an outlaw ‘militia’ as a face off between two militias, one of which happens to control the government. Labels aside, this seems to be al Maliki’s attempt to break the Mahdi Army, possibly because Iraq is soon to hold regional elections and Maliki’s supporters fear the Sadrists will do too well in the southern port city of Basra.

Fred doesn’t say this, but I wonder myself if this isn’t also an effort of Maliki (now allied with what used to be SCIRI) to crush the Sadrists while he still has the power of the US military behind him. Most accounts I’ve seen suggest that Sadr actually has more popular support than Maliki and his supporters, at least among the Shia population. It must not be lost on Maliki and his supporters that a Democrat may succeed President Bush and that that new president may be much less likely to prop up his government with American money and military might. So perhaps best to crush opponents now, with the help of the US military, in advance of that less certain future.

As an aside, President Bush is saying that Iran is, in the words of the Times, “arming, training and financing the militias fighting against the Iraqi forces.” Perhaps that’s true. But it’s hard not to note that the Badr Organization (formerly the Badr Corps), which Maliki has allied himself with, is the outfit that was actually created in Iran under the tutelage and financing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. So this at least seems like a rather partial take on what’s occurring.

In any case, whatever it is and whoever is behind it, the crackdown does not appear to be going well. The Times has a muted run-down of where things stand. The government forces do not seem to be making much headway in Basra and protests and violence has broken out in a number of Iraqi cities. Baghdad itself is now under a curfew until Sunday. A more breathless piece in the Times of London says that Maliki’s “operation to crush militia strongholds in Basra [has] stalled, members of his own security forces defected and district after district of his own capital fell to Shia militia gunmen.”

Finally, this piece in tomorrow’s Post suggests that while this effort may have begun with the Iraqi forces in the lead, US forces are quickly being drawn in to the thick of the fighting while the Iraqi government troops are in at least some cases receding into the background.

From the Post

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.

Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of American weapons, along with the Mahdi Army’s AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.

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, saying death squads, criminal gangs and rogue militias were the targets.

Everything out there suggests that is another engagement between the handful of factions and warlords now controlling Iraq and a possible heat up of the incipient civil war that’s been on the back burner for the last several months. And we’re quickly getting drawn into the thick of the fighting. Because the Iraqi government forces who seem to have started this for their own reasons and, according to US government officials, without warning to the US, aren’t up to the fight and now need the US military to bail them out.

One US official tells the Post that many in the US government believe this whole gambit was Maliki firing “the first salvo in upcoming elections,” which probably sums up all we need to know about the state of Iraqi democracy and political reconciliation.

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