Other peoples’ civil wars

The fighting in the south bears watching. Some news reports paint it as a confrontation between the national forces of a legitimate Iraqi government and armed street gangs allied with Iran. As James Glanz and Anahad O’Connor report in today’s New York Times:

An American military official said Tuesday that coalition forces had supported Iraqi security forces in clashes around Sadr City with “special groups” – a term reserved for what American commanders say are Iranian-backed Shiite splinter groups, which include portions of the Mahdi Army.

Another view is that it represents clashes between various militias, some of which happen to be wearing Iraqi flags on their uniforms. As Darrin Mortenson writes in Time:

Maliki’s government targeted Basra because it could. Unlike many other southern cities where fighting has escalated in recent weeks, Maliki has built an independent power base among the security forces there.

Al-Maliki has close relations with Iran, as does the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), both of these probably better than does the al-Mahdi Army. So what we’re likely seeing is the not uncommon situation in civil wars among more than two factions, where ad hoc alliances form to try to crush a third. The al-Mahdi Army has been a thorn in al-Malaki’s side and perhaps he saw an opportunity to take them down a notch or two.

US participation is a puzzle. We are supplying airpower — that is, bombing people — in support of al-Malaki’s forces. To some, this looks like choosing sides in somebody else’s civil war. On the other hand, we have an obligation to support the government when they undertake “counterinsurgency” operations.

The puzzle is why we would want to antagonize the Sadrists right now. Their standdown has been the primary reason for the fall in casualties over the last six months, and our participation could finally force Moqtada al-Sadr to lift restrictions on operations by his forces. Even if he doesn’t prevail in the ensuing fighting, his resumption of active operations would increase our casualties going into the US election.

Surely we’ve thought of this. Probably, but what do we think is going to result? Will other factions pile on to the al-Mahdi Army? Will they stay out, hoping not to be noticed? Or will they figure that if al-Malaki can crush the Sadrists, they will be next? And then there’s always the possibility that al-Malaki’s forces could lose.

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4 Responses to “Other peoples’ civil wars”

  1. Mycophagiston 26 Mar 2008 at 4:37 pm 1

    If Mr. Lind is correct in HIS piece, then this makes sense. To attack Iran is going to require an excuse. What better excuse (well actually it doesn’t hold water, but what does?) than to get the Shiites launching attacks on us and blaming Iran?

    Dave

  2. […] a strategic view by someone with an understanding of both 4GW and Middle East societies:  “Other peoples’ civil wars“, Chet Richards posted at Defense and the National Interest (26 March 2008).  A brief […]

  3. Cheton 26 Mar 2008 at 7:25 pm 3

    Here’s John Robb’s take, at Global Guerrillas:

    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2008/03/journal-sadrs-d.html

  4. maximilliangcon 06 Apr 2008 at 3:47 am 4

    Mycophagist,

    “To attack Iran is going to require an excuse.”

    And, and, here He comes now,,,

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/05/AR2008040502265_pf.html

    “Bush Listens Closely To His Man in Iraq
    In White House Deliberations on War, Gen. Petraeus Has a Privileged Voice”

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article3690010.ece

    “IRANIAN forces were involved in the recent battle for Basra, General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, is expected to tell Congress this week.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/06/weekinreview/06myers.html?_r=1&ex=1365134400&en=4aa00841896ba77b&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin

    “Such is General Petraeus’s position that President Bush has repeatedly said that he would do nothing not recommended by his chosen commander in Iraq. And so successfully have the two men — civilian and soldier — managed to sustain the war in defiance of public opinion that some in the punditry and blogosphere have given voice to visions of him as a military man with a political future.”