Trouble Brewing in Basra

Violence is escalating in Basra and Baghdad. What will it mean for the much-vaunted surge and wider American involvement in Iraq?

As violence escalates in Basra and Baghdad, the fighting there raises new and profound questions about President Bush's "surge" of American forces in Iraq. If the new battles are not quickly contained, the surge may ultimately represent a strategic error on par with the Bush administration's mishandling of the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall from power-with major implications for the U.S. role there.

The central question is whether the surge will provide an opportunity for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to pursue national reconciliation-the strategic rationale offered by the Bush administration-or, alternatively, whether it will be an opportunity for Maliki to pursue domestic score-settling under the cover of a security operation. Early indications are not encouraging. Today's Washington Post quotes unnamed administration officials as saying that Maliki launched the new offensive in Basra unilaterally, without consulting the United States. That the Iraqi government would take such serious risks without discussing them with U.S. forces is deeply troubling.

Worse, the Post continues, citing another U.S. official, "Some officials have concluded that Maliki himself is firing ‘the first salvo in upcoming elections,' the administration official said. ‘His dog in that fight is that he is basically allied with the Badr Corps' against forces loyal to Sadr, the official said. ‘It's not a pretty picture.'" In other words, one or more American government officials believe that the purpose of Maliki's assault on supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is not to improve Iraqi security, but rather to strengthen the hand of his political allies through the use of force. If true, this evaluation of Maliki's action-again, one offered by U.S. officials-would dangerously undermine the fundamental strategic purpose of the surge. In fact, it would turn the surge upside-down, making it an instrument of forceful consolidation rather than peaceful reconciliation. And the fact that U.S. officials were not consulted means that American soldiers are being dragged along for the ride, essentially manipulated into serving Maliki's domestic political goals.

This, of course, has always been one of the main reasons to avoid becoming involved in other countries' internal disputes-once involved, and committed to defending one of the parties to a conflict, it is all too easy to be unwittingly used in this fashion. At the same time-while it would indeed be a mistake to announce a firm and specific deadline for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq, for many of the reasons President Bush has previously stated-it vindicates Democrats who argued that the administration must put more pressure on Maliki to see the necessary progress in Iraq.

Moving forward, there is a serious danger that after some months of relative calm, Iraq will face renewed sectarian violence that spreads from Basra and Baghdad to other parts of the country, rapidly unwinding the tenuous cooperation between U.S. forces and previously hostile Sunni forces that has helped to pacify key provinces. In addition to imposing terrible consequences on the Iraqi people, who would again face not only the violence but the social and economic costs of growing insecurity, widespread fighting would further dim hopes for political deal-making the surge was meant to facilitate.

More broadly, if the violence spreads and endures, the administration-and especially its successor-would face a major policy and political dilemma. How would the renewed fighting be contained? With a surge on top of the surge? Public opposition to American involvement in Iraq has indeed softened as the surge succeeded in stabilizing Iraq and reducing U.S. casualties-but these sentiments could change as quickly as the situation on the ground, especially if it looks like the Iraqi government is exploiting the U.S. presence for its own aims rather than shared U.S. and Iraqi goals. Pressure to accelerate plans for withdrawal would likely increase sharply.

All should hope that the fighting in Basra and Baghdad will come quickly to an end in the coming days. But whether or not it does, the Bush administration would do well to take a long, hard look at the Iraqi government and at how to ensure that the surge succeeds not only in limiting violence, but in facilitating sufficient political stability to allow for an appropriately paced American disengagement. One thing above all others must be understood in Baghdad: the U.S. military will not be part of anyone's election strategy.


Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Nixon Center. He served as a senior advisor at the State Department from 2003 to 2005.