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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