Al-Sadr has responded with a call for nationwide acts of civil disobedience, and senior leaders within his group have issued veiled threats that continued targeting of Sadrists will lead to a "civil revolt." The violence in Al-Basrah has also spread northward to the towns of Al-Kut and Al-Hillah, well as to the Baghdad slum of Al-Sadr City.
The fighting in Al-Basrah and beyond might indicate an unraveling of the cease-fire called by al-Sadr in August that is credited with reducing the overall level of violence. If that is the case, then Iraq could be headed toward another bloody cycle of violence.
The operation in Al-Basrah looks like a bold display of force by the Iraqi government. It could signal the government's increasing assertiveness as it takes over greater security responsibilities from the British, who handed much of the governorate over last year. The operation was planned and carried out entirely by the Iraqi military -- aside from some air cover by multinational forces -- and it could provide a crucial test of the government's ability to stand on its own.
Success could hand Prime Minister al-Maliki and his beleaguered government a major political victory. Critics have maligned al-Maliki as a weak and ineffectual leader, and a decisive victory in Al-Basrah could strengthen his position in the eyes of Iraqis and the broader Arab world.
But the Al-Basrah campaign is also a calculated risk that could prove disastrous for the prime minister if it goes awry, particularly as al-Maliki is personally overseeing it. The perception could arise that he drastically overestimated the ability of his forces; if the operation becomes protracted and casualties mount, it could result in a severe public backlash.
Moreover, anything short of a relatively quick and decisive victory could indicate that Iraqi forces are still unprepared to assume responsibility for national security. Such a scenario has repercussions for the presence of British troops, who have been training Iraqi forces in Al-Basrah. With the handover of much of Al-Basrah to the Iraqi authorities, there has been considerable pressure in Britain to withdraw the remaining 4,100 British troops in the region. But the reduction of British troop numbers in Iraq is predicated on the assumption that Iraqi forces will be able to take over security operations in the region.
Why Now?There appear to be several factors behind the timing of the al-Maliki government's launch of these Al-Basrah operations. First, Al-Basrah is vitally important to Iraq's economy and to its overall stability, and any significant volatility in that southern city would be keenly felt throughout the rest of country. The city is Iraq's only major port and oil hub, and insecurity there would endanger the export of Iraq's main commodity: oil. Al-Basrah is the departure point for nearly 90 percent of Iraq's oil exports to world markets.
Second, the security situation in Al-Basrah has deteriorated to the point where the Iraqi government had little choice but to act to restore order. Reports suggested that armed groups had taken over hospitals and universities in an effort to impose their brand of religion or political agendas.
Al-Basrah's female residents also came under increasing pressure, including threats and harassment for wearing what their accusers considered inappropriate attire. In a March 20 report in "Al-Azzam," residents were gripped by fear after the discovery around the city of several women's mutilated bodies. Police officials claimed they arrested an armed gang that eventually admitted to killing nine women, but local officials suggest that other similar gangs operate relatively unhindered in the city.
Finally, the deteriorating situation in the city might have created an ideal pretext for the preeminent Shi'ite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), to remove or weaken its main political rival, the Sadrists. The ISCI has kept a wary eye on the growing influence of al-Sadr's political movement in southern Iraq.
The ISCI might also have been spurred to action by the Presidential Council's approval on March 19 of the governorates law, which should pave the way to provincial elections on October 1. There is a widely held belief that the Sadrists are poised for huge gains in the Shi'ite-dominated south in the October ballot. The ISCI, the single-most-powerful political entity in the ruling coalition, could use the chaos in Al-Basrah to press al-Maliki to move against al-Sadr's followers, the Al-Mahdi Army, in a bid to significantly weaken the group before the voting.
While the ISCI's militia (the Badr Organization) has been involved in the power struggle in Al-Basrah, most reports suggest that the main target has been the Al-Mahdi Army. That would lend credence to the argument that there are motives to the military operation beyond the reimposition of law and order in Al-Basrah.
Indeed, such a notion was underscored by Sheikh Ahmed al-Ali, a representative of al-Sadr's movement in Al-Basrah, in an interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television on March 25. Al-Ali alleged that while "this ongoing operation in Al-Basrah appears to be security-related,... in fact, it is a political one."
Cease-Fire In Jeopardy
U.S. military officials have stressed repeatedly that one of the main reasons for the steep drop in violence during the U.S. troop surge is the cease-fire declared by al-Sadr in August. With the massive Iraqi military operation under way in Al-Basrah, that agreement clearly is in serious jeopardy.
The Sadrists accuse the U.S. and Iraqi forces of exploiting the truce to arbitrarily arrest al-Sadr sympathizers. The Al-Basrah operation could push al-Sadr to abandon the cease-fire and call on his militia to return to the streets in self-defense.
The collapse of the cease-fire could have disastrous consequences for Iraqi stability. The relative lull in assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings that accompanied it might end, wiping out some of the gains of the U.S. "surge" in Baghdad and its surrounding areas.
Continued instability in Al-Basrah and in the south might also force the United States to intervene. Already burdened with trying to root out Al-Qaeda in Iraq and stabilize the central regions, U.S. planners can ill afford to shift valuable resources to quell a major conflict in the south.
Sumedha Senanayake is an RFE/RL contributing analyst