Iraq: Recent Maliki-Sadr Clash Ends in Stalemate

Editor's note: for a ground's-eye Iraqi perspective on last week's fighting, see Baghdad blogger (and Iraqi military analyst) Saba Ali Ihsaan's post, "The Climb Down".

Clashes between Shiite militiamen and Iraq's security forces have killed hundreds of people but have failed to defuse the rivalry between two key Shiite leaders, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Neither Maliki, who favors collaboration with the United States and represents a conservative Shiite strand, nor the fiercely anti-American Sadr, a nationalist and a populist, can claim victory in the six-day showdown.

An assessment of the outcome of the military assault on positions of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in Basra launched on March 25 is difficult given that the objectives were not very clear to begin with.

Prime Minister Maliki spoke of rounding up "lawless criminals" terrorizing the civilian population without specifying by name the Mahdi Army, the country's most powerful Shiite militia.

On the ground, however, officers made it clear they were gunning for fighters of the Mahdi Army and the areas Iraqi security forces attacked are known strongholds of the militia.

At the same time, Maliki gave a strategic dimension to the operation by deciding to supervise it personally instead of leaving it to his less politically exposed military commanders.

The Iraqi security forces had been trained by the British military for what appears to have been their attempt to take over a number of districts of Basra controlled by the gunmen.

But within the first few hours, the security force operation had turned into a pitched battle in which US and British warplanes later intervened to lend support to the regular Iraqi forces.

The Iraqi units seemed to have difficulty implementing in real life the techniques of urban warfare the British military taught them in the months preceding the attack.

No serious assessment is available of the losses among the militiamen or the regular forces, but television images showed destroyed and burnt-out armored vehicles of the police and army.

Pictures of gunmen in the streets gave the impression that they could act freely, at least in areas which they have traditionally controlled.

At the end of the six-day stand-off, there appeared to be no change to the Mahdi Army power-base -- the five neighborhoods of Basra that were under the militia's control remained in their hands.

In Baghdad, the end-result also left the situation unchanged -- the major Mahdi Army bastions are still in the hands of the militiamen and the authority of Moqtada al-Sadr remains uncontested.

Symbolically, Baghdad's military command maintained a curfew on traffic in Sadr City and another Mahdi Army bastion, Kadhimiyah, but its capacity to enforce the restriction is limited.

At the most, Iraqi troops can merely prevent vehicles leaving or entering but not stop them traveling within the neighborhoods.

The stand-off brought to the surface the long-simmering rivalry between Mailiki and Sadr, with their rhetoric indicating the depth of emotion.

The prime minister declared the Shiite militia to be "worse than Al-Qaeda," while the radical leader accused the government of corruption and demanded its resignation.

On Sunday, however, the tenor changed significantly.

Sadr ordered his gunmen off the streets, saying it was his "legitimate responsibility to stop the bleeding of Iraqis, to maintain the reputation of Iraqi people."

Maliki quickly responded by welcoming the decision, declaring it a "step in the right direction" and offering amnesty to militiamen who obey Sadr's orders.

Politically, the showdown between Maliki and Sadr revealed both the strengths and the weaknesses of the two leaders.

Maliki put his own credibility on the line by taking control of operations. By settling for an impasse, he leaves the impression that his mission is unfinished.

However, he has never had to be too concerned about loss of popularity as he has never really succeeded in convincing Iraqis he is the savior who is going to deliver the country from chaos.

He can still count on the support of his traditional political allies -- the US administration, the Kurds and conservative Shiites -- who have no other option for a prime minister.

For Sadr, the clashes again demonstrated his power -- his militiamen quickly rose to face off the challenge of the offensive against them.

But he also had to temper this with the human cost and its potential to impact on what matters most to him -- his popularity among the Shiite masses.

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