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Who Won the Battle of Basra?

Dec 2, 2017
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…Well, that depends on who you ask—or which pundit you believe. According to Robert Dreyfus of The Nation the big winners in the recent fighting were radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, his Mahdi Army and their allies in Tehran:

As the smoke clears over new rubble in Iraq’s second city, at the heart of Iraq’s oil region, it’s apparent that the big winner of the Six-Day War in Basra are the forces of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army faced down the Iraqi armed forces not only in Basra, but in Baghdad, as well as in Kut, Amarah, Nasiriyah, and Diwaniya, capitals of four key southern provinces. That leaves Sadr, an anti-American rabble rouser and nationalist who demands an end to the US occupation of Iraq, and who has grown increasingly close to Iran of late, in a far stronger position that he was a week ago. In Basra, he’s the boss. An Iraqi reporter for the New York Times, who managed to get into Basra during the fighting, concluded that the thousands of Mahdi Army militiamen that control most of the city remained in charge. “There was nowhere the Mahdi either did not control or could not strike at will,” he wrote.

The other big winner in the latest round of Shiite-vs.-Shiite civil war is Iran. For the past five years, Iran has built up enormous political, economic and military clout in Iraq, right under the noses of 170,000 surge-inflated US occupying forces. (For details, see my March 10 Nation article, “Is Iran Winning the Iraq War?“) Iran has strong ties to Iraq’s ruling Shiite alliance, which is dominated by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose militia, the Badr Corps, was armed, trained, financed and commanded by Iranians during two decades in exile in Iran. Since then, hedging its bets, Iran built a close relationship to Sadr’s Mahdi Army as well, and Sadr himself has spent most of the time since the start of the US surge last January in Iran.


That Sadr emerged victorious, and that Iran succeeded in brokering the deal that ended the fighting, is a double defeat for the United States. It is also a catastrophe for Maliki, and there is already speculation that his government could collapse. An ill-timed offensive, poorly prepared and poorly executed, resulted in an embarrassing defeat for Maliki.

But contrast Dreyfus’ account to that of Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal. Mr. Roggio, a veteran of multiple embed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, paints a starkly different picture of the fighting and its results:

Six days after the Iraqi government launched Operation Knights’ Charge in Basrah against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed Shia terror groups, Muqtada al Sadr, the Leader of the Mahdi Army, has called for his fighters to lay down their weapons and cooperate with Iraqi security forces. Sadr’s call for an end to the fighting comes as his Mahdi Army has taken serious losses since the operation began.


Sadr’s call for an end to fighting by his followers comes as his Mahdi Army has taken high casualties over the past six days. Since the fighting began on Tuesday, 358 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 531 were wounded, 343 were captured, and 30 surrendered. The US and Iraqi security forces have killed 125 Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad alone, while Iraqi security forces have killed 140 Mahdi fighters in Basrah.

From March 25-29 the Mahdi Army had an average of 71 of its fighters killed per day. Sixty-nine fighters have been captured per day, and another 160 have been reported wounded per day during the fighting. The US and Iraqi military never came close to inflicting casualties at such a high rate during the height of major combat operations against al Qaeda in Iraq during the summer and fall of 2007.

So, which pundit got it right? We’ll go with Bill Roggio, for a couple of reasons. First of all, let’s assume that the latest Mahdi uprising was aimed at embarrassing (and weakening) the Iraqi government. If the offensive was going so well, why did Sadr—or more correctly, his patrons in Iran—decide to pull the plug? Assuming they still controlled large sections of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, the Mahdi fighters had little reason to lay down their arms.

Instead, it was Sadr who ordered his factions to cooperate with Iraqi security forces. And the reason for that is highlighted in Mr. Roggio’s dispatch. During six days of intense fighting, the Mahdi Army took a beating, literally and figuratively. Even an insurgent force can’t afford to lose over 200 fighters a day, including those killed and wounded.

We doubt that Sadr was concerned about the number of fighters he lost. What he couldn’t tolerate was the image of Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S. troops and airpower, routing his forces in Basra and Baghdad. That sort of black eye doesn’t help Sadr, who still views himself as a major political force in Iraq.

Additionally, the Mahdi Army’s latest ill-fated adventure hardly builds confidence in Iran, which has invested millions in supporting Muqtadr al-Sadr and his fighters. Mr. Dreyfus notes that Iraqi lawmakers flew to Tehran during the recent uprising, asking for Iran’s help in ending the fighting. Elements of the Iranian government (most notably the military’s Qods Force) agreed, and Sadr issued his cooperation edict within hours. According to the Nation’s analyst, Iran’s eagerness to help is another example weakness in the Maliki government.

But that narrative seems to contradict the facts. If things were going swimmingly in Basra (and elsewhere), Iran had no incentive to lean on Sadr. On the other hand, if the Mahdi Army was taking unsustainable losses, Iran had ample reason to call a truce. We should also point out that the cease-fire (so far) is one-sided affair. According to Mr. Roggio, the Iraqi government has not called for an cessation of hostilities, and military operations continue.

Given its political leanings, The Nation’s take on the Basra situation is hardly surprising. The danger, of course, is that such distortions will be repeated and amplified in the MSM. Forty years ago, the Tet offensive was a military debacle for North Vietnam—until the U.S. media began reporting the story. Never underestimate their ability to turn an enemy defeat into victory.


Incidentally, Mr. Roggio and his blog are profiled in the most recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review as an example of authoritative, non-partisan war reporting. One more reason to get your war news from the Long War Journal.

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