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Published: Saturday, 4/5/2008

Iran loses ground in Iraq

IN THE opening game of the baseball season between the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics in Japan, 11 runs were scored.

That lead would be unsatisfying to most sports fans because it doesn't indicate which team won. But it is very like most of the reporting of battles in Iraq:

"The deadliest clashes were in Basra, where at least 47 people were killed and 223 wounded in the two days of fighting," wrote the AP's Kim Gamel.

Ms. Gamel was writing about the opening clashes of Operation Knight's Charge, the effort by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take control of Iraq's second most populous city from Iranian-backed militias, chiefly the Mahdi Army nominally headed by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Fighting subsided after al-Sadr called for a cease-fire last weekend.

The cease-fire "is seen as a serious blow" to Mr. al-Maliki because "he had vowed that he would see the Basra campaign through to a military victory," wrote Erica Goode and James Glanz of the New York Times.

But Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi who is a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute, says his sources in Iraq tell him "the Mahdi Army is losing very badly."

So who's right? It is rare in the annals of war for the side that is winning to seek a cease-fire. "The Iraq army has cordoned off the city and is methodically advancing to allow residents to leave the city amidst the fighting, militants to turn over arms, while gradually isolating the factions they intend to uproot," a Marine liaison officer to the Iraqi security forces said in an e-mail Tuesday to radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.

Why might al-Sadr have sought a cease-fire? "Sources in Basra tell Time that there has been a large-scale retreat in the oil-rich port city because of low morale and because ammunition is low due to the closure of the Iranian border," the magazine's Web site reported.

"They were running short of ammunition, food, and water," a U.S. military officer told Bill Roggio, editor of the Web-based Long War Journal. "In short, [the Mahdi Army] had no ability to sustain the effort."

That sure doesn't sound like al-Sadr's forces were winning. It is easier to maintain the illusion that they were if friendly, enemy, and noncombatant casualties are lumped together.

Mr. Roggio said his sources in the U.S. military tell him the Mahdi Army was getting pounded. "According to an unofficial tally 571 Mahdi army fighters have been killed, 881 have been wounded, 490 have been captured, and 30 have surrendered over the course of seven days of fighting. The U.S. 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."

The Mahdi Army has won by surviving, media analysts say. But it seems apparent the Mahdi Army survived by quitting.

Al-Sadr offered the cease-fire after two Iraqi parliamentarians traveled to Iran to meet with the head of the Quds (Jerusalem) force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, McClatchy Newspapers reported. The lawmakers urged Brig. Gen. Qassem Suliemani to lean on al-Sadr (who is in Iran) to offer the cease-fire.

If true (Mr. Kazimi's government source in Baghdad described it as a "naive fabrication"), the McClatchy story indicates the Mahdi Army is under Iranian control.

Why would Iran want the fighting to stop?

"The Iranians have realized that they no longer can use the Shiite militia threat to force Washington's hand on Iraq without jeopardizing their own interests," speculated STRATFOR, a private intelligence service.

Fighting among Shiite factions and the increasing independence of Shiite factions they thought they controlled, havevirtually dashed Iran's hopes to dominate Iraq through Shiite proxies, STRATFOR said.

"The mullahs know that they are losing," said Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute. "Their great dream of driving America out of Iraq, which seemed about to be fulfilled just a year and a half ago, has now turned into the nightmare of humiliation and defeat for the Islamic republic. The al-Maliki government is attacking the remnants of the Mahdi Army in Basra, that same government the mullahs thought they had under control."

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.



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