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Published: Friday, 4/4/2008

Iraq's security forces failed 'defining moment' in Basra

SO MUCH for Iraq's "defining moment." That's what the "Decider" called last week's Iraqi offensive against Shiite militants in Basra. It was a defining moment all right, one that underscored how worthless Iraqi's army and "unity" government are five years into the war.

Interesting how muted Washington has been about the whole affair lately. Initially, the Bush Administration scrambled to put a positive spin on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ill-advised and ill-prepared government crackdown in the country's second largest city. Only after Iraqi security forces got a "thumpin" - to put it in George W. Bush's vernacular - and the prime minister, who had vowed to remain in Basra for a "decisive and final battle" against the militias, backed down after Iran brokered a cease-fire, did the administration start to disown the debacle.

Suddenly gone from its rhetoric were any references to defining moments "in the history of a free Iraq" or previous puffery that the administration regarded Basra as a grand test of the Iraqi Security Forces' strength and the prime minister's resolve. There were no further elaborations on the President's earlier certainty that "normalcy is returning to Iraq."

Nope. Soon word began to trickle out - off the record, of course - from administration officials disclaiming responsibility for Mr. al-Maliki's failed offensive. They stressed he launched the operation without consulting his U.S. allies. Some military leaders and lawmakers suggested otherwise, saying Americans knew in general about the upcoming Iraqi effort but the timing was a surprise.

Apparently so was the almost immediate need by the Iraqis for U.S. air support and other help as soon as the Basra crackdown commenced. But even after American and British troops moved in to mop up after faltering Iraqi forces, the fiasco still ended up with Shiite militants, led by an emboldened Muqtada al-Sadr, controlling Basra.

And loyalists to the radical, anti-American cleric continue to assert themselves in other key cities in the oil-rich Shiite south as well as parts of Baghdad. The fighting has left hundreds dead and wounded. According to figures from the Associated Press, at least 1,247 Iraqis were killed last month, nearly double the tally for February, and the biggest monthly toll since last summer.

U.S. casualties pushed past 4,000 weeks ago. Americans are still getting blown up and picked off by snipers to give the Iraqi government a chance to build up its security apparatus and reach some political accommodations with rival factions in the country.

Even an escalation of nearly 30,000 additional troops to the war zone to allow Iraq more breathing space to stabilize and reconcile produced no empirical evidence that it is anywhere close to standing on its own. Enough. It is time to leave nation-building in Iraq to the Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and others competing for all or nothing, and stand down. If the battle in Basra taught us anything about the U.S. military strategy in Iraq it is that propping up a weak government unwilling or incapable of defending itself against powerful adversaries is a futile sacrifice.

It took 10 years and over 50,000 American deaths for the U.S. to recognize the futility of dying for a losing proposition in South Vietnam. How long will it take before we recognize the futility of dying for no-win sectarian violence in Iraq? Every few months, Washington predicts Iraqi government breakthroughs of military preparedness are coming in a few more months.

Not going to happen. The security gains achieved in Iraq since the U.S. troop reinforcements last year risk being eclipsed by the latest bloodshed and inability of the Iraqi military to stem it. Sporadic bombings, mortar rounds, fierce combat, kidnappings, and roads strewn with corpses are what American forces can expect to endure for at least another nine months.

Despite the doubts Basra raised about the capability of Iraqis to field an effective military or the prime minister to lead with any credibility, Mr. Bush is resolute about failure being synonymous with success. As the rest of the world witnesses a rapidly deteriorating security situation in many parts of Iraq, the President sees a budding democracy being built on the rubble of tyranny. What's up is down. What's black is white.

Next week Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will hew to the company line on Capitol Hill, hailing the President's so-called "surge" in troops but hesitating to advocate any further withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq beyond pre-surge level. Can't be caught off guard - again. Can't chance the next defining moment of Iraqi resolve and military readiness being another embarrassing one for the administration.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com.

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