Sadrist fighters have been ordered to stand down (AFP)
When Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi Army to clean out what he called criminal elements in Al-Basrah a week ago, he offered no compromise.
Saying that the central government was duty-bound to bring security to Iraq's main port and oil-export center, he said that "we will continue until the end. No retreat, no talks, no negotiations." He also went to Al-Basrah, vowing not to leave again until the security operation was completed.
But after six days of fighting that spread rapidly from Al-Basrah to other cities in the south of Iraq and to Baghdad, al-Maliki welcomed a cease-fire offer from radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on March 30. The street fighting now appears over.
Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group, says the fighting was a test of strength between Iraq's two major Shi'ite political factions. Its inconclusive end underlines anew the difficulties Washington will have with leaving Iraq, despite progress against Al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents and hopes this progress might be sustained by the Shi'ite-dominated central government.
"I think it was a dual campaign, on the one hand, by the Iraqi government, which wanted to impose its sovereignty over Al-Basrah, which has been lawless, and secondly, it's a campaign based on the desire by one of the ruling parties, which has its own militia, [the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim] with its Badr Corps, to push back the Sadr movement and its militia, the Mahdi Army, especially since provincial council elections have been planned for the fall in which the Sadr movement is likely to do much better than the Supreme Council."
Hiltermann says the political nature of the power struggle quickly became apparent as the fighting began. The national army units involved were units from southern Iraq, where the recruiting has been heavily from the Supreme Council's Badr Organization.
He says that the other major component of the Iraqi Army, recruits from the Kurdish militias in northern Iraq, "would not go down to the south to fight this kind of fight."
As the clashes intensified, the 28,000 soldiers involved in the operation proved unable to quickly drive al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army from the streets, despite U.S. air support. In the interim, Sadrists in other towns in the south, as well as in Baghdad's sprawling Al-Sadr City slum, tactically spread the fighting there. That escalated the stakes for al-Maliki's government to unacceptable levels as it raised fears of a general insurrection by al-Sadr's forces.
Hiltermann says the sudden end to the showdown on March 30 seems to have come with Iran brokering a cease-fire between the two sides. Tehran has close ties with both the Supreme Council and al-Sadr's movement and wants to see a strong Shi'ite-dominated government survive against Sunni and Kurdish rivals following any U.S. drawdown in Iraq.
Shi'ite Standoff Continues
That leaves the situation in Al-Basrah very much where it was before the week of fighting, which claimed some 359 lives across Iraq.
Hiltermann says Al-Basrah remains divided among three groups. One, the Shi'ite Al-Fadilah (Virtue) Party, is associated with provincial Governor Muhammad Wa'ili. It stayed out of the fray while the troops and the Sadrists battled.
Hiltermann says that Al-Fadilah "has done very well for itself, and they have the governor position and they control the oil company there, so they have a very good share of the oil trade and the oil smuggling that is going on there. The other groups are trying to get a cut of that and, of course, have shared power to some extent, with Supreme Council dominating security institutions and the Sadrists being involved in the police and being very strong on the street."
So, what happens next? One player to watch is al-Maliki. The prime minister, who is from a Shi'ite religious party, Al-Da'wah, t has no strong militia, has had to ally himself at various times with al-Sadr or the Supreme Council. Al-Sadr's party helped him win his post as prime minister, but since then the Sadrists have distanced themselves from him as he has worked closely with the United States, which al-Sadr wants out of Iraq.
Al-Maliki has worked hard to portray himself as a national figure able to restore security and suppress corruption in Iraq. His strong identification with the Supreme Council in leading a fight against al-Sadr, however, now may damage that image, handicapping him as a leader.
The other thing to watch will be the governorate-council elections later this year. In the aftermath of last week's fighting, the question is whether the rival Shi'ite parties will now accept the ballot box as the way to balance power between them or will continue to try force. What they decide will go a long way toward defining the stability of Iraq.